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Study: Climate Change Linked to More Rain in Hurricanes

Climate
The Mississippi River laps at the stairs on a protective levee in New Orleans as tropical storm Barry approaches on July 11. MICHAEL MATHES / AFP / Getty Images

As Hurricane Barry trudges towards New Orleans, it's not the gale force winds grabbing the public spotlight. It's the rain, a byproduct of man-made climate change, according to a paper published in the journal Nature.


A tremendous amount of rain — 10 to 20 inches — is expected to fall from Thursday night to Saturday. That's on the heels of a tropical rainstorm that dropped seven inches of rain on Wednesday. Usually New Orleans gets six inches of rain in July, according to the New York Times.

Barry's rainfall is no longer an outlier, but a symptom of climate change. The research paper found that climate change intensified the rains of three major hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. — Katrina, Irma and Maria — by 4 to 9 percent. The scientists also predicted that future warming could increase rainfall totals for the most extreme hurricanes and tropical cyclones by up to 30 percent, as PBS reported.

"Climate change is in general increasing the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall storms," said Andreas Prein, a project scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who was not involved with the study, as the New York Times reported.

Another scientific analysis, published in the journal Earth's Future, looked at Hurricane Harvey, which dumped an unprecedented 60 inches of rain on Houston. The authors of that study wrote, "[R]ecord high ocean heat values not only increased the fuel available to sustain and intensify Harvey but also increased its flooding rains on land. Harvey could not have produced so much rain without human‐induced climate change."

"If you look at the records, mostly it's the water that kills most people," Dr. Prein said to the New York Times.

The numbers show that the record rainfalls are producing flooding that is far more lethal than winds. Rain-induced flooding caused nearly 75 percent of the 162 fatalities in hurricanes and other tropical cyclones in the U.S. from 2016 to 2018, as the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale reported. Most victims drowned near their vehicles, according to the National Hurricane Center.

That number excludes Hurricane Maria, which dropped a tremendous amount of rain on Puerto Rico. The death toll there and the causes were too difficult to calculate.

"I think we're at the beginnings of the new normal," said Ben Kirtman, director of the Center for Computational Science Climate and Environmental Hazards Program at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science, as the Sun-Sentinel reported.

"It's pretty simple. A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. And so when it comes time to condense all that water vapor and produce rainfall, there's more water vapor available. The second element is the engine for tropical storms; the energy source for that engine is warm ocean surface temperatures, and those have risen. As the climate system warms, the ocean warms. That means there's more fuel for these hurricanes, which can lead to enhanced rainfall."

Hurricane Barry's rainfall is happening at a particularly perilous time for the region after an extremely wet spring caused the region's rivers to swell. That has experts and residents concerned that the storm will overtop levees in New Orleans.

The flooding of the Mississippi River has left very little room for additional water, raising concern that the storm surge will inhibit river water from flowing out to sea.

"The ingredients are there for a real catastrophe if the flood control infrastructure simply gets overwhelmed," said David Gochis, a hydrometerological scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, as the New York Times reported.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.