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Climate Change Denial and the Tragedy of North America's Dams

Authors: Enrique Lanz Oca*, Hunter College - City University
Topics: Energy, Hazards and Vulnerability, Anthropocene
Keywords: Dams, climate change, engineering, and conservatism
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


With approximately 90,000 big dams, the United States has more dams than nearly any other country. It is commonly recognized that these dams, largely built between the 1930s and the 1960s, are in a state of disrepair; in fact, 80 percent of U.S. dams will reach their life span by 2020. This condition is exasperated by unprecedented changes in climatic patterns. Climate change is accelerating dam vulnerability and boosting the risk of collapse. In California, the Oroville dam, the tallest dam in the United States, nearly collapsed due to the unusual amount of winter precipitation in 2017. In Puerto Rico, the Guajataca Dam, hit hard by hurricane Maria, also nearly collapsed in 2018. And just this past spring, the Spencer Dam did collapse, making it the first dam ever to be destroyed by ice chunks. Despite the undeniable influence of the weather, some entities still reject climate change as a factor threatening dam infrastructure, asserting that the managerial negligence of public institutions and the aging status of dams are the only causes of this decay. This paper exposes how two main ideologies have contributed to the current rejection of climate as a factor in dams’ vulnerability. First, the engineering profession still produces engineers who are taught to observe nature mechanically, without recognizing the changing ecological scenario. Second, some conservative agencies, in an effort to convince the public that public institutions and infrastructures do not and cannot function, erase climatic influence from their descriptions.

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