Neglecting future urban development and changing risks can lead to maladaptation to natural hazards

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  • September 17, 2019
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In the wake of Hurricane Florence’s devastating impacts along the East Coast of the United States, we are once again reminded of the urgent need to adapt to the escalating threats posed by climate change and natural hazards. However, as we pursue strategies to increase our resilience, we must be wary of the potential for “maladaptation” – actions that inadvertently exacerbate our vulnerability over time.

Our recent paper published in Nature Sustainability, titled “Hard-adaptive measures can increase vulnerability to storm surge and tsunami hazards over time,” highlights this concern. Through quantitative analysis, we demonstrate that common adaptation approaches like constructing seawalls to protect against tsunamis can actually increase long-term vulnerability if dynamic factors such as changes in urban development patterns and evolving risk profiles are not accounted for.

Consider a typical flood risk assessment. Hydraulic models simulate fluid movement, and the presence of protective structures like levees or riverbanks alters these simulations, redefining the areas deemed “safe” for habitation and development. While this may initially reduce risk, the resulting perception of safety often encourages further urban growth in these zones. Paradoxically, this increased activity can heighten vulnerability to wall failures or extreme events, potentially rendering communities more vulnerable than they were before the protective measures were implemented.

To avoid such counterproductive outcomes, we must take two crucial steps:

  1. Practitioners and researchers must recognize the possibility that risk assessments failing to incorporate dynamic feedback may be significantly flawed. The concept of maladaptation is not yet widely understood or considered.
  2. The public needs to understand that engineering adaptations have limitations, and that living in areas deemed “safe” by such measures still carries inherent risks. For example, 55% of the U.S. population resides in counties protected by levees.

While our study focused on tsunamis, the notion of maladaptation may apply to other spatial and repeatable hazards like flooding, wildfires, and storm surges. By modifying at-risk areas to create a false sense of security, we may inadvertently jeopardize lives and livelihoods. Rather than continually trying to force the natural environment to conform to our desires, we may be better served by adapting our living patterns to coexist with these inherent risks.

As we grapple with the intensifying impacts of climate change, we must approach adaptation efforts with intelligence and foresight, recognizing that short-sighted solutions can lead to long-term peril. By neglecting to account for future urban development and changing risk profiles, we risk rendering our communities more vulnerable than ever before.

The paper was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, the University of Michigan, and the Technical University of Delft’s Delta Infrastructure and Mobility Initiative.

This post was first published on the Nature Research Sustainability Community.

Journal reference:
Tom M. Logan, Seth D. Guikema, Jeremy D. Bricker. Hard-adaptive measures can increase vulnerability to storm surge and tsunami hazards over time. Nature Sustainability, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0137-6

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