Yangdidi highlights experiences of Super Typhoon Maysak survivors

by Sara Cannon

In June 2015, I visited the Ulithi Atoll in the outer islands of Yap, Micronesia for the third time while working with One People One Reef. Just a few months before, on March 31, 2015, the communities had survived Super Typhoon Maysak which slammed the islands with 265 km/hour winds. I remember the way my heart sank as the familiar sight of Falalop, the largest island in the atoll, became visible in the window of the small twin-engine airplane (a sight that would have otherwise filled my heart with joy). The typhoon’s damage was obvious even from a distance.

Outer Islands High School, Falalop, Ulithi (April 2015). Photo via Brad Holland

Outer Islands High School, Falalop, Ulithi (April 2015). Photo via Brad Holland

The impacts of Maysak were devastating. Most of the trees were gone, and in the lack of shade, the sun was relentless. The majority of the islanders’ homes were destroyed, along with much of their infrastructure. Only homes made of concrete were still standing. Ulithi’s high school, one of only two high schools in all of Yap’s outer islands, was virtually flattened. In normal years, students from an approximately 250 km radius come to Ulithi for high school; the only other high school in the outer islands is located in Woleai, over 550 km away. There was no running water and a recently completed multi-million dollar solar panel project on Falalop was ruined. Water filters were provided by the International Organization for Migration and electricity was being provided sporadically via a diesel-power generator.

During my visit, people were still reeling from the damage, but were eager for the opportunity to talk about what they had been through. Because Ulithi has no phone or internet, it’s a challenge for community members to share their experiences with the outside world. With the blessing of Ulithi’s communities, we created Yangdidi, a website that highlights the stories of Super Typhoon Maysak survivors. I worked closely with Kelsey Doyle, a graduate student in Journalism at New York University, and John Rulmal, Jr., a community leader and organizer from the island of Falalop, to compile a series of audio, visual, and written interviews from a wide breadth of community members from all over Ulithi.

To the Ulithian people, yangdidi (or “wind force”) describes what has happened to their islands. The force of Maysak’s winds has drastically shaped the future of this remote atoll. With sea levels rising, and scientists predicting that cyclone intensities will continue to increase due to climate change (2015 set a new annual record for category 4 and 5 hurricanes and typhoons), wind and flood damage from storms may become all too common in the low-lying island nations in the Pacific.

Has climate change played a role in the Syrian conflict?

This is re-posted from exactly two years ago. Since then, the Syrian refugee crisis has worsened.

20120424_syriadroughtThe Syrian conflict has become a humanitarian tragedy incomparable to others in recent history. Over 2 million people, 10% of the country, have fled during the ongoing conflict according to the UN.

While the proximate drivers of the Syrian conflict are a reaction to an oppressive government, the wave of Arab Spring protests, and other political, social and economic factors, a number of experts have argued that climate change, or at least climate, has served as a “multiplier”.

Links between climate change and the Arab Spring have been suggested for the past couple of years. High wheat prices in 2010-11, driven by droughts in Russia and China, may have contributed to the unrest in Egypt and the overall timing of the Arab Spring protests. In Syria, add on the fact that a severe drought over the past decade has devastated farmers.

From a UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction report:

Poor and erratic rainfall since October 2007 has caused the worst drought to strike Syria in four decades. Approximately one million people are severely affected and food insecure, particularly in rainfed areas of the northeast – home to Syria’s most
vulnerable, agriculture-dependent families.

Since the 2007/2008 agriculture season, nearly 75 percent of these households suffered total crop failure. Depleted vegetation in pastures and the exhaustion of feed reserves have forced many herders to sell their livestock at between 60 and 70 percent below cost. Syria’s drought break point was the season 07/08 which extended for two more seasons, affecting farming regions in the Middle north, Southwestern and Northeastern of the country, especially the northeastern governorate of Al Hassakeh. 

The drought drove internal migration to the cities, depopulating some rural areas:

The drought is causing a high drop-out rate, families left in the area who cannot afford, or do not want, to move are suffering. Some figures estimated the people lifted their villages to be more than one million people. Thousands of Syrian farming families have been forced to move to cities in search of alternative work after two years of drought and failed crops followed a number of unproductive years. The field survey that conducted by ACSAD/MoLA/UNDP in January 2011 showed that most of the houses on villages are left empty and less than 10% are occupied by old people and children, The younger generations left for thousands of kilometers seeking work.

While the Syrian drought, like any individual event, cannot be definitively attributed to climate change, the Middle East and the Mediterranean region is one place where climate models agree that drought is becoming or will become more frequent due to human-induced climate change. From Hoerling et al. (2012):

The amplitude of the externally forced [ED-meaning “human-caused”], area-averaged Mediterranean drying signal (estimated from the ensemble mean of CMIP3 simulations) is roughly one-half the magnitude of the observed drying, indicating that other processes likely also contributed to the observed drying.

 Naturally, these connections need to be viewed with caution. Climate change is not solely responsible for the Syrian drought, as natural climate variability and ill-conceived land use and agricultural policy clearly also contributed. And the drought itself is only one of many stressors that led to the crisis in Syria. The fact is we will never be able to precisely calculate the contribution of climate change to a geopolitical event or a humanitarian crisis.

Does the inability to provide a precise answer – the drought is 44% due to climate change – matter?

Inability to attribute events to climate change may make adaptation seem impossible. A solution is to not view adaptation as separate from other development activities. For example, the large aid institutions  recommend marrying climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. In other words, when working on a program or system to reduce future droughts, consider how climate change may alter the likelihood and nature of future disasters.

Right now, any of that would be a luxury in Syria. Dealing with the everyday humanitarian crisis is paramount. Hopefully, in time the crisis will abate enough to work on rebuilding people’s lives and improving the capacity to deal with future droughts.

Weather, climate and the “limiting” nutrient in waterways

Nutrients are a good thing. They promote growth of cells in plants and animals. Food manufacturers love to advertise that their products, like breakfast cereals, are chock-full of “key” or “vital” or “healthy” nutrients.


In waterways, however, you can have too much of a good thing. Load a lake or an estuary with too much of the nutrient that limits productivity and you might choke the system with algae – the process that scientists call eutrophication because we stink at naming things. All that algae eventually decomposes, or is consumed by other organisms that eventually decompose,  which uses up oxygen crucial to other organisms. That’s a rough explanation of what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Nutrients, particularly nitrogen, leach off agricultural fields and empty into the continental shelf, driving the development of a large “hypoxic” or “dead” zone each summer.

The key issue for the algae is the stoichiometry (again, we stink at naming things) or the ratio of the nutrients: the relative availability of key chemical players like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and silica (Si). Say the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus in the water is greater than what most algae need; they typically 16 nitrogen”s” for every phosphorus. Then phosphorus becomes the “limiting nutrient”. Add more phosphorus and you should get more growth because there’s already enough nitrogen available. Add more nitrogen, no dice, as there’s not enough phosphorus to match the existing nitrogen levels.

Now, past research has shown that thanks to things like fertilizer loading agricultural soils and groundwater full of nutrients, the key determinant of how much actually ends up flowing down a agricultural river is the weather. For example, a study by myself and Don Scavia showed that a wet fall (which “recharges” the groundwater) in the Midwestern U.S. followed by a wet spring means a large flux of nitrogen down the Mississippi, and all else being equal, a large “dead” zone. But most of that type of runoff and nutrient analysis has focused on individual nutrients, when what really matters to the algae, is the ratio between the nutrients.


Mississippi Delta and northern Gulf of Mexico

A recent paper led by my former student Doris Leong looked sensitivity of the nutrient ratios to variability in runoff, and hence rainfall. The idea was that, since N, P and Si come from different sources and have different solubilities and adsorptive properties, the flow of each nutrient in a watershed may respond differently to a change in rainfall and runoff*. We hypothesized that in an agricultural river basin, where there is a lot of nitrogen in a soluble form in the soils and groundwater, the N:P and N:Si ratio in the river should increase during wetter periods. An analysis using data from across the Mississippi River Basin confirmed the hypothesis, particularly for N:P:

A doubling of the discharge by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico is found to increase the N:P by 10% and the N:Si by 4%. Analysis of data from upstream stations indicates that the N:P increases with discharge in subbasins with intensive row crop agriculture and high fertilizer application rates.

The effect suggests that the weather could influence nutrient limitation productivity downstream. It may also subtly influence the relative abundance of different primary producers (e.g. algae) in river or in the coastal zone. For example, research shows that if N:Si reaches well above 1:1, there can be a shift away from the production of diatoms, which require Si to build their shells.

The results of the paper suggest that, if all else is equal, a wetter climate in the central U.S. would mean higher N:P and N:Si in Mississippi water. It is important to note, however, that all else is unlikely to equal. Changes in agricultural practices, river management, erosion control, etc. will also influence the availability and movement of nutrients. From the conclusion:

The flux of nutrient ratios depends on multiple environmental characteristics of a watershed, including land use, land management, climate and geology, and the river network, and it is difficult to determine the relative importance of these different effects. The dominant nutrient species, sediment transport, presence of dams, as well as in-stream uptake of nutrients, all play a role in controlling the movement patterns of nutrients over the landscape and within rivers. High-resolution data and models that incorporate sediment and dissolved nutrient cycling are needed to understand the multiple factors that influence how nutrient ratios respond to changes in discharge. As future climate change drives an increase in hydrologic variability, the predictability of the response of nutrient ratios to discharge may be important to understanding ecosystem responses to climatic change.

* Technically speaking, we modeled the relationship between river discharge and nutrient load as a power law. Thus the hypothesis was that for a given watershed, the exponent in the power law would be different for N, P and Si.