HHURRICANE IAN crashed on the Florida coast on September 28. It is believed to be tied as the fifth strongest recorded hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous United States, with winds approaching 150 mph (240 km/h). He left Cuba in the dark after cutting its power grid; now some 2 million Floridians are without power. Two people died in Cuba; losses in Florida are not yet confirmed. A few days earlier, Typhoon Noru hit the Philippines after intensifying with unusual speed, killing at least eight people and forcing tens of thousands more to evacuate. Are these types of storms getting worse and is climate change to blame?
Due to the release of greenhouse gases by humans into the atmosphere, the temperature of the planet is on average 1.1 to 1.3°C warmer than it was before the industrial revolution. Since then, there has been no increase in the number of tropical cyclones, fast-rotating storms known as hurricanes in the Atlantic, and typhoons and cyclones elsewhere. This suggests that global warming is not making them more frequent (although it may be moving to where they do occur). But the storms themselves are getting stronger, slower, wetter and wilder.
Tropical cyclones are powered by the temperature of the waters through which they form and move. More than 90% of the additional heat within the climate system is drawn in by the oceans, whose average surface temperatures are about 0.8°C above the 20th century average. Between 1980 and 2017, the seas absorbed more than three times the amount of energy contained in the world’s supply of fossil fuels. This extra power allows storms to escalate faster. Warmer air also holds more moisture, which helps hurricanes last longer once they hit the coast and increases the amount of water they can dump as rain.
Climate change also appears to be influencing the path of hurricanes across land. The speed and direction of storms are driven by airflows in various parts of the atmosphere, which appear to become slower as global temperatures rise (although it is not yet known why). This makes it more likely that hurricanes will move slowly or hover over a location, increasing their destructive capacity. A study by US Weather and Space Agencies found that the average forward speed of North Atlantic hurricanes decreased by 17% between 1944 and 2017. In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey stalled for three days above from Houston, Texas, where it released record amounts of precipitation, causing catastrophic flooding. Scientists then determined that the event was made three times more likely by climate change.
Climate change is also causing sea levels to rise, as ice caps and glaciers melt and water expands as it warms. This increases another threat posed by hurricanes, which push seawater toward the shore as they move. Higher seas mean surges travel further inland, reaching more people and buildings. Differences in gravity and currents mean that extra water in the oceans is not evenly distributed along all coasts. Around Fort Myers, a Florida town on Ian’s Way, sea levels are 13.3 inches higher today than they were a century ago. The storm surge reached 3.7 meters there, submerging cars and houses.
All of these factors combine to make hurricanes more damaging to property and livelihoods. (Deaths, however, are falling, as forecasts and emergency response times improve). The total cost of weather and climate disasters in America – to which storms are the largest contributor – over the past five years was $788 billion, or about one-third of the total for 1980-2022 (adjusted for inflation) . But climate change is not entirely responsible. The same goes for the propensity to build on vulnerable stretches of coastline. Between 2010 and 2020, Florida’s population grew by nearly 15%, double the US national rate. People also flocked to the Atlantic coast. In the end, humanity is doubly guilty: of altering the climate to make hurricanes more dangerous, and of continuing to get in their way.
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