New research suggests that drought wiped out the Mayan civilization. Are we next? While it’s often difficult to draw direct a line between a specific “natural” disaster or event and human activities, in the scientific community, a consensus is emerging that droughts, floods, “superstorms” and other unusual climate events are side effects of an Earth out of balance.
Some changes are anecdotal, but nonetheless real. In the Northeast, for example, we’ve seen some of the mildest winters in living memory, with spring thaws occuring months too early, eerie periods of balmy weather in mid winter, and erratic temperature shifts that have confused blossoming trees and plants, exacerbated tick infestations and put snow plow operators out of work.
In a few cases, cause and effect have a direct correlation. Research suggests that recent earthquakes in Ohio, for example, may be directly correlated with underground “fracking” exploration for natural gas. If you’re one of the many who think of natural gas as a clean, green alternative to other fuels, go down to your video store and rent “Gasland.” The costs of cheap natural gas may be borne by generations of Americans who won’t even get the benefit of using it.
As human beings accelerate or interrupt natural processes, nature is responding in kind. And chances are, we’ve only seen a hint of what’s to come.
Ask a Texas farmer if the climate has changed.
Drastic Water Reductions
A combination of large and small lifestyle adjustments can reduce household water usedramatically.
Stop Eating Meat – According to The Guardian, a meat-eating person anywhere in the world requires about 1,100 gallons of water a day to produce his food, compared with about 450 gallons a day for a vegetarian diet. That’s a 650 gallon difference per person. A typical family of four uses 400 gallons a day for both house and yard.
Cover Pools and Replace Lawns with Plants – About 30% of household water use happens outdoors. Swimming pool covers reduce water lost to evaporation by up to 80%. Pools can be topped off with collected rainwater, when it’s available, and drained (preferably for use as gray water) during the driest seasons. Convert lawns to native xeriscaping. Lawns are not only passé, they’re a monoculture, reliant on chemicals and (often) combustion engine for maintenance.
Upgrade Sprinkler Irrigation – Replace sprinkler systems with a drip system controlled by an electronic moisture sensor that only operates when necessary. It should also include a rain sensor that shuts off irrigation when it’s raining.
Replace Toilets – Replacing household toilets with 1.6 gpf models saves about 14,000 gallons of water per year for a family of four.
Upgrade Appliances – Upgrading an old clothes washer to a front-loading model typically reduces water use by about half, saving up to 8,000 gallons annually. Newer dishwashers offer similar dramatic improvement over old models.
Slow the Flow – Add aerators that restrict faucet waterflow to 1.0 gpm and save about 1,700 gallons annually for a typical household. Newer showerheads reduce flow to as little as 1.75 gpm without losing pressure.
Stop Leaks – Finally, check for leaks in hoses, toilets and anyplace else that may be quietly tapping your precious water resources.
Submerged - is this the new normal for the Northeast?
When raising a house on stilts or large-scale renovation isn’t possible, you can still prepare for flooding in a way that mitigates damage.
The term “wet floodproofing” refers to the practice of prepping a home for inevitable flooding, rather than trying to keep it completely dry during the next flood. Louisiana State University (in a region with plenty of flood experience) suggests that this is a lower cost strategy, especially for a home that has been previously flooded and is being rehabbed. Note that a prerequisite for many of these measures would be to make sure the home is strongly secured to its foundation.
The LSU AG Center recommends:
1. Raise electrical outlets. Wiring and outlets are costly to replace. When walls are open, move the outlets above the expected flood line.
2. Consider interior walls that can be removed and dried—alternatives to gypsum such as wood wainscoting. Leave a gap for drainage at the bottom of the wall and cover it with a wide wooden baseboard. If you use drywall, put a wide chair rail horizontally on the wall that conceals a gap between the wallboard on the bottom half of the wall and the wallboard above it. That gap will prevent water from “wicking” upward.
3. For flooring (and also wall coverings) choose durable, stain resistant materials such as clay tile, patterned concrete, stone or brick. When installing these products, use a waterproof grout, such as a two-part epoxy product. On walls, you may want to install them over cement board, the way you would a tile shower.
4. Rigid, closed cell foam insulation is probably your best alternative for filling cavities that are within the likely flood zone. This type of insulation is less likely to develop mold and other problems.
Along with these structural ideas, elevate appliances, and, if possible, build an outbuilding with elevate storage where you can move electronics, appliances and valuables to weather the next deluge.
"As of mid-January 2012, the 2011 confirmed tornado count stood at 1,625, with 93 tornado reports still pending for November and December. This places 2011 as the second or third most active year on record for number of tornadoes since the modern record began in 1950.” – NOAA
Rather than build an entire fortress that can withstand a tornado, most experts recommend construction of a “safe room” where you can wait out the maelstrom.
Unless you live in a concrete geometric dome with no windows, chances are your home isn’t ready to face down a tornado, with 250 mph winds, hurling deadly debris in its path. But FEMA and other organizations have worked out some good designs for safe rooms—small, ultra-sturdy spaces, relatively safe from the thrashing outside—even if the rest of the home is blown to smithereens. You’ll want to get detailed plans from FEMA, but here’s a primer on how they’re planned and built.
1. Start Early. If possible, build the safe room at the same time as the home. It will not only cost less overall, but can be designed with its own foundation—not attached to the walls of the home foundation. The idea: It should remain standing even if the house is destroyed.
2. Go Rogue. If the house is built over a crawlspace, not a full foundation/basement, the best option may be to build a separate shelter outside the home, rather than cutting a hole in the floor and excavating a foundation from inside the home.
3. Get Low. Shelters can be built indoors using wood framing with wall reinforcement of heavy plywood and even sheet steel. Good locations are toward the center of the home on the first floor, or better yet, below it, such as beneath a laundry room. The idea is keep the room isolated and out of the path of flying missiles.
4. Assess the Flood Risk. It may sound obvious, but a safe room is not waterproof. If there’s a flood risk accompanying potential tornadoes, the room will have to be built above grade, at considerably more cost than a basement shelter.
Source: FEMA: “Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House”
Earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear power don’t mix.
Does Fracking Cause Earthquakes?
Aggressive techniques used to extract natural gas from shale call into question the fuel’s former reputation as a clean energy option.
U.S. Geological Study just released notes a “remarkable” number of small earthquakes in the continental U.S. since 2001, a period when the technique of hydraulic fracturing has been used extensively to extract natural gas.
If the gas industry had been less eager to exploit new resources, the fuel’s reputation as a clean-burning, “green” option might have remained above the fray. But the more we learn about fracking, the uglier the story gets. If you’re not sure what we mean, rent the documentary “Gasland,” and get a primer on how the gas industry frequently acquires this fuel. The end user product may be above criticism, but the process of getting it is a nightmare for the environment—and people who live nearby.
Briefly, fracking, a relatively new way to get at natural gas, sends a drill deep into the ground, where it turns at a 90-degree angle. At that point, a toxic mix of hundreds of chemicals, plus sand and between 2 and 5 million gallons of fresh water are pumped into the ground, to force out the trapped gas.
But communities from Arkansas to Pennsylvania are learning the hard way that fracking can pollute fresh water supplies to an unheard of degree. And no one knows how long that water will remain toxic. It may be decades—or centuries.
A study at Cornell University, in fact, suggests that fracking for natural gas may create twice as much greenhouse gas pollution as coal extraction.
Back to earthquakes. As if the water pollution factor wasn’t enough to put the brakes on fracking immediately, recent quakes in Ohio have been linked to fracking. Natural gas may be inexpensive, but it’s time we realized it’s not cheap. The environmental costs of these new extraction techniques are too high. Without them, would natural gas still be an inexpensive alternative to fuel oil? At present, the gas industry is creating an enormous (perhaps incalculable) debt that generations will have to pay. The only people cheering about this are probably the bottled water manufacturers.
Preparing an older home for future earthquakes is often prudent and relatively affordable—yet many homeowners prefer to take their chances.
The California Emergency Management Agency made some interesting observations recently about how people in high-risk areas respond to earthquake hazards. “More than 60% of Californians have learned what supplies and equipment to have, and how to make their home contents safe, but less than 35% have learned how to make their home structure safer or how to safeguard their finances.”
As organizations such as the Institute for Building and Home Safety (IBHS) point out, the potential financial savings from even minor prepping a home for earthquakes is about $25,000. The three most important upgrades:
1. Bolt or “Plate” the Home to Its Foundation. Many older homes lack bolted connection to the ground. Whenever possible, upgrade ½” anchor bolts to ¾” bolts with large washers (square ones are best) at 4’ intervals on the perimeter, and 6’ intervals for interior walls (assuming they rest over foundation walls). If adding bolts is impractical, a plate system that anchors the sill to the foundation is a good workaround. Many old homes are simply sitting on a foundation or nailed down with concrete nails. Note that these measures also help secure the home against wind and flooding events.
2. Secure cripple walls.Short cripple walls often buckle and collapse during an earthquake, causing the rest of the house to collapse. Adding a layer of 3/8” plywood to the interior side that ties sill plates all the way to the underside of the first floor adds a lot of shear strength. In warm climates, where crawlspace ventilation is a concern, holes can be drilled in the plywood panel and covered with insect screen.
3. Attach rim joist to sills with metal plates. The connection between the sill that sits on the foundation and the house frame is a common failure point during seismic events. By simply adding 90-degree metal reinforcing plates around the perimeter of the home, you can greatly improve its resistance to lifting and racking.
Also, studies have shown that most injuries in homes tend to be caused by falling objects than structural failures. Strap down heavy objects such as water heaters, air conditioners or tall shelves that could fall or move during a quake event.
To view this article as it appears in our June 2012 issue, with additional drawings and photos, please visit our Magazine Archive.