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New study shows growing development in areas at risk for natural disasters

California Wildfires
Posted at 5:09 PM, Jul 09, 2021

From wildfires to hurricanes, natural disasters can destroy entire towns.

“We’re just putting structures in harm's way, and harm's way is becoming a broader and broader area,” the Director of the Cooperative Institute for Research and Environmental Sciences at CU Boulder, Waleed Abdalati, said.

Beachfront properties, cabins in the mountains, houses below sea level all exist in potentially risky areas.

“Who doesn't want to look at the ocean? So there's a lot of development right up to the edge of the water, and over time that edge of the water is creeping inward,” Abdalati said.

Sometimes where we build doesn't necessarily mean forever. In fact, more often than not, our homes and offices are in the path of potentially devastating natural disasters.

“57 percent of structures are in only 31 percent of the area which is these hazard hot spots,” Matthew Rossi, a research scientist at Earthlab at CU Boulder, said. He also was one of the authors of a new study looking at the risks of where we’ve developed over the years.

The study details the areas they investigated and the risks that exist in those spots.

“We were looking at using structure level data, so the building that is constructed in hazard hotspots, and asking 'Are we preferentially building in those places?'” Rossi explained.

The answer is yes. The study found growth rates in hotspots exceed the national trend.

“We actually are preferentially building in these hazardous zones,” he said.

They looked at earthquakes, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, and hurricane wind speeds. These are all events that Jeff Schlegelmilch with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness is familiar with.

“We have a lot of structures, a lot of aspects of modern society that are in harm's way,” Schlegelmilch said.

He said he sees an increase in the frequency of these disastrous events as well.

“Looking backward doesn't tell us everything we need to know moving forward. The kind of hazards we’re exposed to, the aging infrastructure we have, it's all entering into a changing world with more extreme events,” Schlegelmilch said. “If 2020 weren’t known for COVID, it would be known as another record-breaking year of billion-dollar weather-related disasters.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keep data on the impact these events have.

From 1980 to 2021, floods cost an average of $3.6 billion a year, wildfires $2.5 billion. The average cost for all disasters every year is around $45.4 billion.

“You have the convergence of development, increased vulnerability from sinking land, and increased vulnerability from climate change,” Abdalati said. He’s been watching the earth change from space his entire career.

“We’re living in a changing world, we’re living in a changing environment, and that changing environment brings with it risk. And it’s critical for our success as a society that we understand those risks, and we do what we can to mitigate those risks,” he said.

For example, wildfires.

“We see increases in the number of fires over the last few decades, and we see increases in the areas burned by those fires,” he explained.

As we continue to develop land and experience a changing pattern of weather events, Schlegelmilch said it’s important that people stay informed of where they’re at and the risks they face.

“We have to prepare for a world where this is more normal, not more of an outlier, and prepare for those scenarios,” Schlegelmilch said.

“I think it actually helps local and regional planners to think about how they might reframe some of the questions they've always been asking when developing in hazardous zones,” Rossi said.