In a matter of seconds, natural disasters can destroy buildings, tear up roads and disrupt normal life. However, the damage caused by these events is not limited to people and their property. When recovery begins, there is often what happens to the environment to contend with.
Erosion, destruction of wildlife, water pollution and release of carbon dioxide are real environmental threats that can be caused by natural disasters. Long after a hurricane, landslide, earthquake or wildfire has ended, the ecological effects caused by these disasters can persist.
How Natural Disasters Can Damage Infrastructure and the Environment
If you’ve ever followed news coverage of a major hurricane, you’ve probably already seen some real-world examples of how natural disasters can damage the environment. Power plants, gas stations and factories flooded by a storm surge can release toxic chemicals and other debris into local water sources, which can kill wildlife or even make some areas uninhabitable.
Hurricanes also tend to accelerate coastal erosion. Storm surges can dump and deposit massive amounts of sediment in or from coastal areas. Over time, this can threaten the stability of coastal structures and contribute to habitat loss. Particularly severe storms can also destroy forests, displacing animals.
Even minor damage to certain industrial structures can have a major impact. Pipelines are regularly damaged by landslides and earthquakes, sometimes leading to crude oil leaks, which can have a serious environmental impact . Amid the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, one expert called for the route to be changed due to the high risk of landslides along the construction route.
Hurricanes can cause water contamination
If your company has a solid disaster preparedness plan in place, hurricane damage can be mitigated with good practices and insurance. However, many businesses are not prepared for the potential problems these storms can cause, and in some cases, this can make matters worse.
For example, wastewater ponds, which phosphate plants use to store acidic and somewhat radioactive waste produced by mining operations, can also have a major impact if they are disturbed or damaged by natural disasters. In 2004, Hurricane Frances caused huge waves in a pond above a phosphate plant in Riverview, Florida. This sent 150 million gallons of contaminated water cascading into a stormwater ditch surrounding the plant.
At this point, the company opened a valve that released 65 million gallons of water from the ditch into the local Archie Creek. This contaminated water turned the creek, which flows into nearby Hillsborough Bay, into acid. Once it entered the bay, it had an immediate effect on the area’s marine wildlife. Mac Nipper, a diver and local from nearby Clearwater, told the Tampa Bay Times, “I walked along the bottom looking for sponges and marine life, and it was a void…like it had burned down to nothing.”
You may not notice some of the immediate environmental impacts. Vehicles, barrels, boats and heavy equipment can also be flooded or crushed during the storm. This can release toxic chemicals, such as fuel, antifreeze, solvents, and lubricants, which can enter groundwater sources.
Chemicals from flooded roads, subways, tunnels, and parking lots can also reach waterways.
Wildfires can have lasting impacts.
Each year, California wildfires damage more than 70,000 acres of land. Some years, however, they are much more severe than others. The larger they are, the more severe the environmental impact they will have.
In 2018, extreme wildfires swept through California after a spark from faulty electrical equipment ignited dry brush. Nearly 2 million acres of land burned, destroying more than 22,000 buildings and causing more than $3.5 billion in damages.
Smoke from these fires can cause dramatic increases in air pollutants, seriously damaging local air quality. The combination of heat and air pollution displaces large numbers of animals, which can be stressed by human contact as they move into more populated areas. Forest fires also release significant amounts of carbon dioxide and destroy trees that would otherwise remove CO2 from the air.
The environmental impact of forest fires is not always negative. They are a natural part of many forest life cycles. Small-scale fires remove dead undergrowth, leaves and other debris from the forest floor, making way for new growth. This can sometimes offset the CO2 produced by these fires. Scientists do not normally include CO2 production from forest fires in their calculations of global CO2 levels for this reason.
However, human activities, including wildfire suppression, are making these wildfires much more intense than they should be. As a result, California’s fires emit massive amounts of CO2, to the point that some analysts believe the state may not be able to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Natural disasters can have serious effects on the environment
A sudden storm, flood or landslide can cause significant damage to both property and the environment.
Some of this damage is preventable. Improved fire suppression practices, such as controlled burns, can help prevent extreme wildfires, for example. Other damage, such as erosion caused by hurricanes, is a reality that coastal communities must prepare for. By better understanding the effects of natural disasters on the environment, you can take steps to reduce damage and help the planet recover.