Preparing for El Niño

By Joyanna Laughlin

Comparing this year's sea surface temperatures in the Pacific wi

El Niño and Resilient Design

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared a moderate to strong El Niño beginning in March of this year that’s expected to peak this winter and dissipate in the spring of 2016, says Tom Di Liberto, a NOAA Climate Prediction Center meteorologist. An El Niño, which usually lasts between nine and 12 months, is determined by a combination of rising Pacific Ocean temperatures (approximately 1°F above normal for at least half a year), weakening trade winds, and climate modeling trends. The graphic at the top of this post (by Matt Rehme at the Visualization Lab of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)) shows the comparative sea surface temperatures in 1997 and this year, indicating the possibility of a strong El Niño. 

What kind of weather should you prepare your home for? “Overall, look for wetter than normal conditions from California across the southern Rockies this winter—including Colorado and New Mexico—to the southeastern United States,” says Mike Nelson, chief meteorologist for KMGH-TV in Denver. “Warmer and drier-than-normal conditions are expected from the Pacific Northwest across the Northern Plains and Great Lakes to New England.”
 
Southern California, Southern Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico
“California—especially the southern half—should have a wet winter,” Nelson says. While rain could help alleviate the state’s massive drought, flash floods and mudslides are often associated with a strong El Niño. “With the fire season California’s had this year, a winter with heavy rain could cause many more mudslides due to the land having been burned this summer and a lack of grass or trees to hold the soil,” Nelson explains.

On a more positive note, Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist at Opensnow.com, and Di Liberto predict above-average snowfall for the 2015-2016 ski season in southern California, southern Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

The Pacific Northwest Through the Northern Plains
The Pacific Northwest, Montana, and the northern plains are expected to be drier than normal this winter, according to Di Liberto and Nelson. This is unwelcome news for Oregon and Washington, states that have already battled massive wildfires this year.

The Gulf Coast and Northeast
Heavy rainfall in the Gulf Coast area may cause flooding there, Nelson says. And new models indicate that above-average rainfall could impact the Northeast along the coast up to Connecticut, Di Liberto adds.
  
The Age of Resilient Design
What’s the best way to protect your home from El Niño and other weather events? Consider resilient design. With the increase of dramatic weather around the world, more people are thinking about how to make their homes and other structures resilient in the face of adversity, says Scott Rodwin, AIA, LEED AP, and president of Boulder, Colorado-based Rodwin Architecture. “Resilient design means preparation for—and the ability to adapt to—extreme impacts like fire, flood, drought, snow and the disruption of energy,” Rodwin says.

According to the Resilient Design Institute, “resilient design is the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities and regions in response to these vulnerabilities.” 


Considering potential weather events such as El Niño, the intense wildfire seasons in the West, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (a story recently appeared in Wired entitled “No One is Ready for the Next Katrina
”), and the fact that people continue to live and build in areas prone to these dramatic events, Scott Rodwin and Austin, Texas-based architect François Lévy, AIA, offer these recommendations for building resilient homes in areas that may experience conditions such as flash floods, wildfires or heavy snowfall.


Minimize Flood and Moisture Problems

1. Don’t buy land in a flood plain. It may sound obvious, but before you buy a piece of property, make sure that it’s not located in a floodplain. For example, Lévy explains that the city of Austin offers a Web page where you can type in an address and see if that property is located in a floodplain. Other resources include the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) flood map service center, the National Flood Insurance Program, real estate appraisals, surveys, and flood zone certifications. Use the most current flood maps because the climate changes and areas get built up quickly.
 
2. Ensure that your land and home have viable drainage.
Include code-compliant drainage away from the house on all sides (10 percent slope for a minimum of 6 ft.). Make sure that all downspouts kick out away from the foundation at least 3 ft. Install perimeter drains around the foundation. Commission a geotechnical report to determine the soil’s ability to properly drain water away from the house if you have any concerns about moisture. Order a formal grading plan from a civil engineer or architect, if necessary.

3. Manage moisture during construction. “It’s not a problem to build with wood when it rains, you just have to let it dry out,” Lévy says. While contractors may feel pressure to get homes built quickly, Lévy recommends letting the jobsite dry out for a couple of days after a rain, rather than, for example, installing drywall directly onto a wet slab and letting moisture get inside the drywall. Mold can be very expensive to remediate, and the cost may be borne by the builder.

Build Ignition-Resistant Homes
In 2010, Boulder experienced one of Colorado’s worst fires, which destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and made ignition-resistant construction a major concern. Here are Rodwin’s recommendations to make your house as ignition-resistant as possible:

1. Create defensible zones by removing combustible vegetation (especially trees) from a zone immediately around the house.
2. Minimize raised wood decks (which are especially vulnerable and create a fire source right against the house). Use composite decking (which has a class A fire rating) or masonry patios.
3. Minimize wood siding and exposed 2x wood construction. Use cement board, cementitious stucco, metal siding or masonry.
4. Avoid vented eaves and attics where airborne sparks can lodge inside the roof structure.
5. Use energy-efficient (metal clad) windows that also reflect heat from fires.
6. Utilize simple roof geometries because they help reduce places where organic debris can lodge and burn.
7. Install a whole-house fire suppression system and/or a cistern (for firefighters to draw from).

Winterize Your Home
To prepare your home for the winter, Rodwin offers these suggestions:

1. Weatherproof it. Caulking, weather-stripping, and sealing up drafts in your home ensures that you’re comfortable this winter and reduces energy bills.
2. Add insulation. More is always better in a house.
3. Replace windows over 40 years old. New windows contain films and frames that increase energy-efficiency and are more thermally comfortable.
4. Upgrade furnaces and boilers to sealed-combustion, high-efficiency models. Newer models cost more up front but pay for themselves within a few years.
5. Consider installing snow guards (horizontal metal rails on the roof) to help protect against snow slides, which can damage roof tiles and injure people below.

September 8, 2015



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