London has numbed me to everything and I have lost all sense of wonder

Sunshine over south London. Sort of. Image: Getty.

London is weird. Living in London is weird. I know it intellectually, and I’ve definitely lived in some of the absolute weirdest ways in London, and it’s not like I can’t have noticed that recent period where I was living on a boat with no door in a tidal creek or anything.

But you can get used to anything – especially with the blinkers-on observational shutdown of city life. So even if everyone I know from everywhere else knows that London is an alien concept, and even if when I actually stop to think about it the dissonance does creep a bit, I mostly don’t notice. Like when the rent comes out and you just think, “ah, the immutable force that makes me poor despite earning well over the national average has visited again, like the tooth fairy”. And then get a six quid pint to soothe it all over.

I’m a motorsport journalist, and I travel a lot for work. Covering Formula E, you get to see cities – and I’m interested in cities. My work involves a lot of mysterious wandering around Eastern Europe, taking dramatically grim photos of concrete, and I own more books about bricks than most people, especially most people who write about driving in circles for a living.

Some of it sort of smacks you in the face. I went to Monte Carlo last year; it’s a staggering, high-rise ode to being filthy rich, so sumptuously and comfortably presented on the Mediterranean coast that, like a Tory who keeps buying you rounds of drinks, you feel your ethics being so very pleasantly eroded by every second you spend there. Obviously, I paused to look in an estate agent’s window to laugh at how many millions of pounds I’d need to rent a shoebox, ready to be vicariously stunned by the lavish costs around me.

It was about the same as a posh flat in London Bridge. For some reason, my reaction to this was to question why living in the 2km2 of Monaco wasn’t more expensive, not what on earth London had done to itself. I mentioned it to a fellow Formula E person from London and they agreed – how was this tiny haven of tax evasion so darned cheap? Haha, how we laughed.

Not that I can afford a flat in London Bridge. But if I could, the weather’s definitely nicer in Monte Carlo – and the air doesn’t try to murder you.

I just got back from Mexico City, which has the most traffic of anywhere on earth. Oh sure, you notice it – the roads are constantly jammed and the two taxis I took were the result of laziness that I instantly regretted, taking fifteen times longer than the excellent tube network. (Like, er, London – albeit with more accessible stations.)

People had warned me about the smog because that’s a thing you know about Mexico City; it’s at high altitude, there’s smog, and something about tacos. I cheerfully announced there wasn’t any, on a day when apparently there was an air pollution warning – because my black-gunk-filled, wheezing respiratory system is so used to London. I was genuinely finding it easier to breathe.


Equally, I had a sort of guilty meltdown three days in when I finally remembered I was in a city that had a devastating earthquake only last year. How could I forget or ignorantly not notice that? It wasn’t because I had some idea of Mexico City as half-demolished, some colonialist snoot about a poorer country: it’s because I’m so utterly numb to Crossrail-or-whatever-it-is-now digging enormous craters across everywhere that I just took reconstruction work or semi-crushed buildings to be background signs that Developments Were Taking Place.

Naturally, like any good Londoner I have long ceased looking directly at the Developments as I know they are not for me. So I hadn’t even glanced over the fences of the multiple sites I walked past, frantically raising a city from the earth that had floored it.

In Hong Kong I didn’t notice the high density. Staying in Chungking Mansions, famed for being threatening and warren-like, I reminisced in blasé fashion about the period I worked in Hannibal House, the condemned carbuncle whose concrete decay threatens the Elephant & Castle shopping centre. At a champagne-brand sponsored after party, I enthused to a colleague that the drinks were very reasonably priced at a mere £13 for a gin & tonic. I’d expected it to be much worse.

In Singapore, I found myself idly thinking about the fact the police weren’t very heavily armed, and that I hadn’t seen many of them for this supposedly repressive regime. Which is at least absolutely because Singaporean police weren’t the ones that have menaced me into keeping my passport on me at all times in the city I live in, because I am so scared by repeated requirements to prove I’m allowed in the country that I just numbly homogenised it into the field of ‘normal’.

I’m not stupid, or ill-informed about the places I’ve been, and very occasionally something does still strike me, like my naive observation that buildings in Montreal are really big. And in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I sickened myself by thinking I hadn’t seen any really shocking poverty – just because I am so used to seeing it in London. Returning to work when I got back, it was the families sleeping on the streets of the UK capital that shook me after the respite.

On a lighter note, I do often notice that cities are quite small. Berlin, Montevideo, Marrakesh – all tiny. Copenhagen, Toulouse, Turin – microscropic. Nothing seems further than 45 minutes’ walk away in Berlin: I don’t think I’d even hit Zone 2 in the same time, setting out from my home in East Ham.

Which is a neat summary; London has blown all my senses of scale. It’s galactic-brain-style, big-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness expanded my concept of price, size, construction, pollution so totally that I have no ability to even quantify them anymore.

Sipping wine in a UFO-shaped restaurant suspended precariously above Bratislava, I found the shaking every time a tram went over the bridge below didn’t bother my vertigo as much as it should. “Just like a tube train, really,” I said to my companion. Before wishing I could punch myself in my stupid Londoner face and get back some kind of sense of awe.

 
 
 
 

The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is rising

A man watches wildfires in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

In a warming world, the dangers from natural disasters are changing. In a recent commentary, we identified a number of costly and deadly catastrophes that point to an increase in the risk of “cascading” events – ones that intensify the impacts of natural hazards and turn them into disasters.

Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

This rising risk means decision-makers, urban planners and risk analysts, civil engineers like us and other stakeholders need to invest more time and effort in tracking connections between natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, debris flow, and drought, under a changing climate.

Cascading disasters

Since 1980 to January 2018, natural disasters caused an inflation-adjusted $1,537.4bn in damages in the United States.

The loss of life in that period – nearly 10,000 deaths – has been mounting as well. The United States has seen more billion-dollar natural disaster events recently than ever before, with climate models projecting an increase in intensity and frequency of these events in the future. In 2017 alone, natural disasters resulted in $306bn losses, setting the costliest disaster year on record.

We decided it was important to better understand cascading and compound disasters because the impacts of climate change can often lead to coupled events instead of isolated ones. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNISDR, claims: “Any disaster entails a potentially compounding process, whereby one event precipitates another.”

For example, deforestation and flooding often occur together. When vegetation is removed, top soil washes away and the earth is incapable of absorbing rainfall. The 2004 Haiti flood that killed more than 800 people and left many missing is an example of this type of cascading event. The citizens of the poverty-stricken country destroyed more than 98 per cent of its forests to provide charcoal for cooking. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, there was no way for the soil to absorb the rainfall. To further complicate existing issues, trees excrete water vapor into the air, and so a sparser tree cover often yields less rain. As a result, the water table may drop, making farming, which is the backbone of Haiti’s economy, more challenging.


Rising risk from climate change

Coupled weather events are becoming more common and severe as the earth warms. Droughts and heatwaves are a coupled result of global warming. As droughts lead to dry soils, the surface warms since the sun’s heat cannot be released as evaporation. In the United States, week-long heatwaves that occur simultaneously with periods of drought are twice as likely to happen now as in the 1970s.

Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, which is altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 per cent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster since soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Fluctuations in temperature and other climatic patterns can harm or challenge the already crumbling infrastructure in the United States: the average age of the nation’s dams and levees is over 50 years. The deisgn of these aging systems did not account for the effects of cascading events and changes in the patterns of extreme events due to climate change. What might normally be a minor event can become a major cause for concern such as when an unexpected amount of melt water triggers debris flows over burned land.

There are several other examples of cascading disasters. In July, a deadly wildfire raged through Athens killing 99 people. During the same month on the other side of the world in Mendocino, California, more than 1,800 square kilometers were scorched. For scale, this area is larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.

When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January of this year, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilised in a wildfire. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.

Hurricanes also can trigger cascading hazards over large areas. For example, significant damages to trees and loss of vegetation due to a hurricane increase the chance of landslides and flooding, as reported in Japan in 2004.

Future steps

Most research and practical risk studies focus on estimating the likelihood of different individual extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. It is often difficult to describe the risk of interconnected events especially when the events are not physically dependent. For example, two physically independent events, such as wildfire and next season’s rainfall, are related only by how fire later raises the chances of landslide and flooding.

As civil engineers, we see a need to be able to better understand the overall severity of these cascading disasters and their impacts on communities and the built environment. The need is more pronounced considering the fact that much of the nation’s critical infrastructure is aged and currently operate under rather marginal conditions.

A first step in solving the problem is gaining a better understanding of how severe these cascading events can be and the relationship each occurrence has with one another. We also need reliable methods for risk assessment. And a universal framework for addressing cascading disasters still needs to be developed.

A global system that can predict the interactions between natural and built environments could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Most importantly, community outreach and public education must be prioritised, to raise awareness of the potential risks cascading hazards can cause.

The Conversation

Farshid Vahedifard, CEE Advisory Board Endowed Professor and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mississippi State University and Amir AghaKouchak, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.