Nature bats last

By Victoria Stoppiello

Victoria Stoppiello is a north coast freelance writer and long-time weather watcher. You can reach her at

Gaia is pissed! That’s the thought that runs through my mind in response to multiple “natural” disasters exacerbated by human behavior. First, there’s Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Houston, where I lived for a few years as a small child. I remember evacuating to the brick hospital where my mom worked to wait out the impact from a hurricane. I also remember playing with other kids in what we would call a swamp, a muddy, slow moving stream spreading through a virtually flat hardwood woodland.
That woodland is undoubtedly gone now, filled and leveled to accommodate 50 years of sprawl. Several observers have commented that Houston’s push to become America’s fourth largest city exacerbated the damage from Harvey. Like New Orleans, Houston used to be protected by a gigantic wetland sponge that provided a buffer from storm surge and allowed upland rain to slide toward the Gulf. Even in Harvey’s aftermath, one developer (speaking from the safety of his high-rise) was more focused on the “opportunity” that could be had in re-building, not resilience.
Round two occurred last week when a 7.1 quake hit near Mexico City, one of a handful of seismic events there in only a week. Mexico City is built on a former lake; we can blame that on the ancient Aztecs who built on islands for defense, not on twentieth century greed. However, after the devastating 1985 quake, researchers found that buildings between six and 15 stories high on the soft lake bed suffered more damage due to “resonance” as the quake’s tremors were transferred to soft ground and then magnified by the taller buildings’ “frequencies.” These are implications for how we build high rises along our beaches, especially on old estuaries buried by past tsunamis.
But I skipped a couple of Gaia’s recent blows to our equanimity: Hurricane Irma plowed across Florida, leaving not as much damage as Harvey, but still enough for some to ask, “Why so many powerful Hurricanes now?”
I answered that question in my 2005 Observer essay, “Katrina and Cassandra” about climatologists’ observation that a warmer ocean births not more frequent hurricanes, but more powerful ones. An MIT study stated, “While tropical ocean waters have warmed by only .9 degrees Fahrenheit during the last 30 years, Atlantic Hurricanes have doubled in power; small temperature increases appear to ‘pump up’ these phenomena…the number of tropical cyclones (hurricanes in the Atlantic, typhoons in the Pacific) has stayed steady at about 90/year.”
Then we have the close to home Eagle Creek wildfire, one of the most enraging events of my lifetime. Yes, right up there with invading Iraq, both events triggered by immature male personalities with more bravado then common sense.
It is no accident that Gaia is perceived to be a female energy, better known as Mother Earth. The Gaia principal suggests that, just as each of us is a conglomerate of cells and microbes, the Earth is also a living being composed of all that we experience on its crust: plants, animals, humans, even rocks—and with a heartbeat, the electro-magnetic pulse that has been recorded by scientists. Could the earth itself have consciousness? And, could that consciousness now be striking back at our species?
From Gaia’s perspective, did Houston have it coming? It is ironic that Houston’s refineries supply 30% of the US gasoline supply and burning gasoline is a major contributor to global warming, which in turn contributes to climate change. (Perhaps “climate shift” would be more accurate; think about that one: downshifting with four-on-the-floor can be rather abrupt.)
The mechanics are pretty straightforward: warmer air holds more water vapor (we know this from physics), warmer air and water in the Gulf of Mexico leads to bigger, stronger Hurricanes. Connect the dots: More fossil fuel burning, warmer earth atmosphere, warmer oceans, more powerful storms. If Gaia is a conscious force, she aimed a blow at Houston. Then she threw a couple more punches – Irma, Jose, Katja, Lee (in the west central Atlantic and apparently not likely to make landfall), and now last week, Maria.
Forgot to mention, there are climate change issues on other continents besides North America. One-third of Bangladesh is under water from flooding. On a local note, there are flash flood warnings for burned-over areas in the Columbia River Gorge and Southern Oregon. Last Tuesday night, it rained so hard it reminded me of the tropics, but I notice no one warns of flash floods or landslides from the clear-cuts I can see from my windows…at least not yet.