A Sociospatial Approach to Extreme Weather and Community Health: Interdisciplinary Strategies

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Wednesday, 7 January 2015: 9:45 AM
221A-C (Phoenix Convention Center - West and North Buildings)
Sheila Lakshmi Steinberg, Brandman University, Irvine, CA; and W. A. Sprigg

Increasingly, extreme weather has become an important consideration within different geographies around the globe, including the United States. For example, “globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for June 2013 was the highest for June since record keeping began in 1880” (NOAA 2014) and 2013 was a year recording extreme cold in many parts of the globe. Extreme weather is as an unpredictably intense force that threatens current patterns of life in many places. Environmental changes associated with extreme weather have significant social and health impacts, and costs.

To plan effectively for and preserve the health and well-being of populations require pro-active approaches. We propose an approach that engages with, and understands, communities before extreme weather events occur in a particular place. What does the term place mean in this context? A place is a geography region including both physical and social environmental features. Each place contains one or more cultural groups within its boundaries, defining a unique sociocultural patter for the region. Each group establishes their own cultural norms of communication and response to extreme weather patterns. Many times these cultural and social norms, and patterns of interaction, vary depending on their surrounding environment.

Such sociocultural patterns of interaction are often influenced by the geographies in which people live. For example in desert and southwestern communities, people have a greater awareness of extreme heat and limit their outside activities in the heat of the day. Similarly, in colder climates people have an equally established and healthy respect for their environment, dress accordingly and choose appropriate weather-related activities.

The challenge emerges when a particular geographic area begins to experience extreme weather that is unfamiliar and not encountered on a regular basis. Challenges arise because: 1) the sociocultural groups in the region are unfamiliar with the specific type of extreme weather event, and; 2) engagement and response practices to that form of extreme weather are lacking.

A community may suddenly find themselves proximate to flooding, loss of power, extreme temperatures and/or powerful storms for which they have no existing sociocultural response. Effective preparation and planning is essential in all of these settings. By better understanding the relationships between health, extreme weather community strengths and social patterns, governments and communities can better prepare for action when extreme weather strikes.

In this paper we propose adopting a place-based approach to examining communities' interaction and responses to extreme weather. Communities evolve patterns of settlement, commerce and industry around particular places and the local climate and resources. Cities and towns were built along coastlines or rivers to facilitate transportation and energy. Each year, extreme weather is leading to natural disasters that exert significant economic, social and health costs. The International Monetary Fund (2012) estimates that since 2010, 700 worldwide natural disasters have affected more than 450 million people around the globe.