Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Adaptation: The Roles of Knowledge and Memory in Past and Present

This year is not the first time in the United States that climate change became a politically charged, hotly debated topic during a very active hurricane season. A comparable situation occurred in the 2005 season, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. Similar to current federal policy, the Bush administration prevented the EPA from informing the public about climate change by actively changing the agency’s reports and suppressing the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” Nevertheless, nongovernmental climate scientists engaged in heated debate in scientific journals and conferences about whether anthropogenic climate change was making hurricanes more destructive, increasingly frequent, or both.1 While this remains a crucial question (particularly in the U.S. context of widespread climate change denialism), the connected and equally central point is whether and how societies can adapt to a potentially unprecedented situation with regard to the frequency and severity of extreme events.

Social scientific studies that deal with this question have so far mostly focused on individual events. To make viable claims about societal learning and adaptation in the aftermath of extreme climatic events such as hurricanes or floods, however, it is necessary to look at the evolution of institutions and adaptive practices over the long term, that is, as history.2 It is quite evident, for example, that the Dutch did not develop their renowned dam-building technologies in the aftermath of a single flood event but by coevolving with this natural hazard over time, developing their own “culture of disaster.”3

Embedded in this observation about the need for a deep historical perspective are three interrelated claims. First, the frequency of extreme events is central with regard to adaptation practices and culture. If an event only happens once in 50 or 100 years, it is highly unlikely that—speaking in Western, industrialized terms—zoning plans, architectural structures, insurance programs, and relief institutions will emerge to mitigate such an event.

Second, the return frequency of extreme events is connected with human disaster memory and generational change. Disaster memory comprises sustained environmental knowledge held and developed across generations. Environmental knowledge is what humans learn about their surroundings in the span of their lifetimes—knowledge about the carrying capacity of a given soil, for example, seasonal climatic variability, the flood cycles of a river, what constitutes “normal” flooding levels, and the ways in which hazards such as hurricanes play out in a specific local geography.4 At the same time, if there is a positive connection between the frequency of extreme events, on the one hand, and knowledge and memory, on the other, this continuity can be disrupted. After an otherwise high frequency “normal” in extreme events, it only takes a lull of several decades for a society’s risk-consciousness to gradually crumble.5

Third, if risk consciousness nonetheless remains strong due to a high frequency of extreme event impacts, societies develop institutions (in the widest sense of the term) and technologies over time to mitigate the effects of those events. The entanglements that emerge between humans and the environment manifest themselves in culture. The ensuing cultures of disaster are shaped by local environmental knowledge, values, political structures, technological adaptations, and often religious beliefs. Besides the Dutch example, cases in point include the North German dyke-building and Japanese earthquake cultures.

Local Knowledge

In my research on cultural adaptation to hurricanes in New Orleans across an almost 300-year timespan, local environmental knowledge—including hurricane knowledge—emerged as crucial.6 While that might seem obvious to a certain extent, it is much less obvious why and how the development of this knowledge, its evolution into a science, and its coupling with technological developments between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries did not lead to “successful” adaptation in such a highly industrialized country, as Hurricane Katrina revealed in 2005. A detailed answer to this question surpasses the scope of this piece; however, on a more general level, my findings clearly defy a linear historical narrative of “progress,” of industrial and technological success and advancement.

Barber Shop located in Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana, damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Source: Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,

One of the most crucial aspects in the process of adaptation to hurricanes was the slow and contingent development of radar and satellite technologies, which only from the 1960s onwards made it possible to see hurricanes from space and predict their paths in order to warn potentially affected populations beforehand. This factor together with the slightly earlier spread of the car as a means of evacuation allowed people to remove themselves to safety in ways that were not possible before the mid-twentieth century. Yet neither of those technologies was developed in response to hurricanes. The role they came to play in adaptation was unintended, even unforeseeable.

Political structures and political culture also hampered the realization of far-sighted adaptation options at various times. One such project during the French colonial period was to build a hurricane-safe port for ships on New Orleans’s Mississippi waterfront after the 1722 hurricane. The city’s French inhabitants had, for the first time, experienced how a storm surge and hurricane winds could destroy almost all their ships and smaller boats—the only means of transport for commerce and provisioning at the time. After a hurricane hit the Gulf Coast in 1888, there was a proposal to place floating weather stations in the Gulf of Mexico connected by telegraph with New Orleans. Even though the technology and knowledge to implement both projects were readily available in the periods when they were proposed, the adaptations were not implemented for short-term political and economic reasons. In the French colonial instance, Louisiana’s company directors in Paris regarded the proposed hurricane port as a costly engineering measure without considering the long-term economic benefits the colony could reap from such a project.7 The lack of such foresight was in part a function of the mercantilist trade system, which treated colonies as stores of exploitable resources to enrich the metropole and in which investments were kept to a minimum. In the case of the floating weather stations proposed in 1888, Congress ended up not allocating funding for the project, despite public attention and appeals by the local press, appeals repeated after the next strong hurricane in 1893.8 It is likely that the problem of hurricanes appeared too regional to allocate federal resources. What is more, from 1893 onwards, the United States economy slipped into a depression, the second since the Panic of 1873, which made spending federal funds on “visionary ideas” impossible.9

Moving ahead to Hurricane Katrina, disaster memory—dimmed by the forty-year gap between it and the last previous such disaster, Hurricane Betsy—was yet another disrupting factor in New Orleans’s history of adaptation to hurricanes. The years between 1965 and 2005 comprised a human generation, enough for risk awareness and preparedness to subside in the region.10

Learning from History

As significant as New Orleans’ last disaster gap was, that issue might well prove less important to disaster adaptation in the future. In the context of climate change, we will likely not be dealing with disaster gaps but instead with an increase in impacts. What would that mean for memory, knowledge, and adaptation? Historically, preventative technologies have always been built on the worst known precedent. For example, levees in seventeenth-century France and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New Orleans were always raised to the level of the most devastating flood on record. Yet we also have countless examples of the worst flood being surpassed by an even more terrible event, an outlier, or what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a “black swan.”11

Does the uncertainty inherent in the conditions of anthropogenic climate change—and of the Anthropocene more generally—render findings from the history of environmental knowledge and adaptation obsolete?12 Does it mean that we cannot learn anything about human adaptation to climate change by looking at past human experience?13 As a historian, I am of course convinced that we can learn. Indeed, with regard to adaptation, it is absolutely necessary to look at historical examples of such human-environment entanglement processes. For despite the Paris Climate Accord, the attainability of its 1.5º C target seems to be dwindling proportionally with the inertia inherent in national climate and energy politics. This inertia is one reason why—already before the Paris deal—research into societal adaptation to climatic impacts has gained renewed traction, particularly in the social sciences.

Anthropogenic climate change and the need to transform our energy systems in time to avoid still more dangerous climate change has created a watershed moment in cultural adaptation. What has so far been a contingent, often piecemeal, and above all unplanned process—sometimes “successful,” sometimes not—is now becoming a global political imperative. Experts, to be sure, are making policy suggestions, albeit often without taking into account specific national or regional “cultures of disaster,” adaptation histories, and related contingent factors that make societies resist rapid change. As the few examples from New Orleans show, political structures, political culture, and situational political and economic contexts are key when it comes to deciding for or against certain adaptation measures, regardless of the availability of knowledge that speaks for the measures or the existence of a feasible technology to realize them. Such contingent factors are difficult to capture in scientific models of human behavior, especially if those models are based on rational choice theory.14 Including long-term historical perspectives on human-environment co-evolution is needed to broaden our understanding of adaptive processes and the ways in which they can be shaped by policy.15

Eleonora Rohland is Assistant Professor for Entangled History in the Americas, 1600–1850, Bielefeld University, Germany.

  1. This “climate war” has been brilliantly summarized by Chris Mooney in Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007). See also “Trump is Copying the Bush Censorship Playbook: Scientists Aren’t Standing for It,” The Guardian, January 31, 2017; as well as Union of Concerned Scientists, “Climate Change Research Distorted and Suppressed” [2004], ↩︎
  2. On adaptation and long-term studies, see Franz Mauelshagen, “Disaster and Political Culture in Germany since 1500,” in Natural Disasters, Cultural Responses: Case Studies toward a Global Environmental History, ed. Christof Mauch and Christian Pfister (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), 42–44. For recent case studies that employ a long-term approach, see George Adamson, “Institutional and Community Adaptation from the Archives: A Study of Drought in Western India, 1790–1860,” Geoforum 55 (2014): 110–19; and Matthew J. Hannaford and David J. Nash, “Climate, History, Society over the Last Millennium in Southeast Africa,” WIREs Climate Change 7, no. 3 (2016): 370–92. ↩︎
  3. Greg Bankoff originated this term in Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003). ↩︎
  4. Marcy Rockman and James Steele, eds., Colonization of Unfamiliar Landscapes: The Archaeology of Adaptation (London: Routledge, 2003); Marcy Rockman, “New World with a New Sky: Climatic Variability, Environmental Expectations, and the Historical Period Colonization of Eastern North Carolina,” Historical Archaeology 44 (2010): 4–20. ↩︎
  5. One environmental historian calls this lull a “disaster gap.” See Christian Pfister, “‘The Monster Swallows You’: Disaster Memory and Risk Culture in Western Europe, 1500–2000,” RCC Perspectives 2011, no. 1,; and Christian Pfister, “Die Katastrophenlücke des 20. Jahrhunderts und der Verlust traditionellen Risikobewusstseins,” Gaia 18, no. 3 (2009): 239–46. ↩︎
  6. The results of this research are summarized in Eleonora Rohland, “Adapting to Hurricanes: A Historical Perspective on New Orleans from Its Foundation to Hurricane Katrina, 1718–2005,” WIREs Climate Change, Early View, September 12, 2017, doi: 10.1002/wcc.488, and will appear in detail in Eleonora Rohland, Hurricanes in New Orleans, 1718–2005: A History of Adaptation (New York: Berghahn Books, 2018). Historically, knowledge about the seasonality, geographical range, and characteristics of hurricanes developed only slowly and remained highly localized and confined to specific groups of agents, such as sailors, colonial personnel, and other inhabitants of hurricane-prone regions. The disparate repositories of what I call “hurricane knowledge” only became part of a clearly defined field of science, tropical meteorology, in the late 1940s; Herbert Riehl, Tropical Meteorology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1954). ↩︎
  7. Compagnie to Périer, “Mémoire de la Compagnie,” Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, Colonies, C13 B 1, f. 88v–89r. Louisiana was administered by John Law’s Compagnie de l’Occident/Compagnie des Indes from 1717 to 1731, when it was retroceded to the French Crown. ↩︎
  8. “The Storm Came without Warning,” Daily Picayune, October 5, 1893. ↩︎
  9. Ibid. ↩︎
  10. Karl Fuchs and Friedemann Wenzel, Erdbeben: Instabilität von Megastädten: Eine wissenschaftlich-technische Herausforderung für das 21. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2000), 22. ↩︎
  11. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan. The Impact of the Highly Improbable. (New York: Random House, 2007). ↩︎
  12. The idea that humans have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which they are the driving geological force of the planet, influencing not just the climate system but also biodiversity and chemical processes of the soil (depleting vital elements such as phosphorus) was first advanced by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter, no. 41 (May 2000): 17–18. The concept was developed further by the interdisciplinary Anthropocene Working Group, which is working toward formal recognition of the epoch (and its characteristics) by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. A brief overview of this process and relevant conceptual definitions can be found in Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369, no. 1938 (March 13, 2011): 842–67, DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0327. ↩︎
  13. The question how anthropogenic climate change and a growing awareness of the Anthropocene more generally are expanding the traditional remit of history beyond humans was discussed for the first time in Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222, and further elucidated in Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Fiction, History and Politics in the Age of Global Warming (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). A recent lecture series at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin also deals with this question: “Anthropocene Lectures,” 2017–2018. ↩︎
  14. As is unfortunately still the case with the IPCC’s definition of adaptation; for a criticism see Rohland, “Adapting”; and Lesley Head, “Cultural Ecology: Adaptation—Retrofitting a Concept?,” Progress in Human Geography 34, no. 2 (2010): 234–42, doi: 10.1177/0309132509338978. ↩︎
  15. This perspective is explored in more detail in a forthcoming article series I am working on with two colleagues, George Adamson and Matthew J. Hannaford, for Global Environmental Change titled “Re-Thinking the Present: The Role of a Historical Focus in Climate Change Adaptation Research.” ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Eleonora Rohland, “Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Adaptation: The Roles of Knowledge and Memory in Past and Present,” History of Knowledge, November 14, 2017,