As I write this, the disaster of Hurricane Harvey is still unfolding. Buckets of rain are still falling in Houston and the waters are still rising. The flood damage, biblical in proportion, is frightening to behold. Even as the rescue efforts continue, many are wondering, “Is this the new normal for our coastal cities?”
As Earth’s climate changes we can expect more destructive hurricanes. As sea level and surface temperatures rise, more solar energy is trapped in the atmosphere, revving up the hydrological cycle of evaporation and precipitation, and sometimes manifesting in terrifying storms. Add to this the rapid and sometimes careless development of our urban areas in patterns which are, shall we say, not always strictly motivated by long-term planning for runoff management and neighborhood safety.
In all these ways this disaster reflects changing circumstances in this new time of enhanced human influence which many are calling the Anthropocene—the geological age of humans. With this title we recognize that we have become a planetary-scale force.
Some developments of the Anthropocene are cause for celebration. Consider the fleet of Earth-observing satellites that we now take largely for granted. Scientists and historians have not agreed on a start date of the Anthropocene, but one candidate might be the moment in the late 1950s when Earth began launching small metallic pieces of itself back out into the void. The first successful weather satellite, TIROS-1, was launched in 1960 and returned the first television image of Earth from space. Since 1962, we’ve had continuous satellite coverage of Earth’s weather patterns. Our planet had entered a new phase—it had begun to self-monitor.