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Hurricane Season 2019: Global Warming, Forecasts and Probabilities

Climate
Hurricane Florence on Sept. 12, 2018. ESA / A.Gerst, CC BY-SA 2.0

By Astrid Caldas

On May 21, the first named storm of 2019, Andrea, was recorded on the north Atlantic. This makes 2019 the fifth consecutive year that a named storm has formed before the official start of Atlantic hurricane season.


Something caught my eye when I read that: the number five. That's because, according to NASA, 2018 was the fourth warmest year in a continued warming trend since record keeping began in the 1880's, with temperatures 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.83 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 1951 to 1980 mean. And with it, a string of five consecutive years have been recorded as the five warmest on record. I will say this again: the last five years have been the five warmest years on record.

Is climate change having an effect on hurricane season, or on hurricanes themselves? Hurricane season starts on June 1st. Let's take a look at the latest forecasts and science.

Hurricane Forecasts and Their Messages

On April 16, Colorado State University (CSU) released its hurricane outlook for the 2019 season, forecasting 13 named storms with 5 of them turning into hurricanes, of which 2 would classify as major (categories 3 and above).

On May 23, the National Hurricane Center, part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) released their forecast, predicting a "near-normal" season with 9 to 15 named storms and 4 to 8 hurricanes, with 2 to 4 being major ones. An average season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes. The numbers are very similar to the ones from CSU.

The odds for that near-normal season are 40%. Odds for above-normal or below-normal activity are both at 30%. But, as I mentioned last year, odds are not certain predictions. They are just that: odds (see below for more on that). And the last couple of years certainly reminded us of that.

Years to Remember – in More Than One Way

NOAA's forecast for the 2018 season also had a near-normal probability of 40%, with 35% odds of it being above normal, and 25% odds of being below-normal. It forecast 10 to 16 named storms and 5 to 9 hurricanes, with 1 to 4 being major. What we saw was a season tilted toward the higher side of the predictions — there were 15 named storms and eight hurricanes. Two of those were major, and two hurricanes — Michael and Florence, the latter not a major hurricane but a category 1 — caused roughly $50 billion in estimated damage.

While the probabilistic predictions may not have raised any eyebrows, when a record four hurricanes were active at the same time, that caught my eye.

If we look further back, at 2017, the probability of an above-normal season was at 45%, and below-normal activity was at 20%. The forecast called for 5 to 9 hurricanes, with 2 to 5 being major — and the reality blew the predictions: we had 10 hurricanes with 6 major ones. Three of these major ones hit the U.S., and nobody will forget the string of names Harvey, Irma and Maria anytime soon. That also caught my eye.

However, I was not surprised when the numbers fell outside of the given range.

Understanding the Forecast

That is because the range in numbers given in NOAA's forecast has a 70% probability, meaning that "The seasonal activity is expected to fall within these ranges in 7 out of 10 seasons with similar climate conditions and uncertainties to those expected this year. They do not represent the total possible ranges of activity seen in past similar years." So, there you have it, in plain language, that the actual numbers for 2019 (as in any season) may be different from the ones in the forecast.

What Do These Seasons Tell Us?

Forecasts are based on probabilities calculated from conditions at the time of the forecast, and as such, there is ample room for conditions to change and actual facts to fall outside the probabilistic calculations, as the numbers for 2017 show. At the time of the 2018 forecast, sea surface temperatures were running below average in the area where tropical storms form, and the forecast was based on those conditions. For this year, NOAA stated that there are competing signals affecting the forecast: an ongoing weak El Niño is expected to suppress intensity of Atlantic hurricane activity, while warmer-than-average surface waters and an enhanced African monsoon are forces that could lead to increased activity. Will these conditions change and affect hurricane activity? Probably. That is also why NOAA releases an updated forecast later in the season, usually in early August. Mind you, the updated forecast is based on the same probabilistic calculations, only using updated conditions.

Most importantly, it only takes one hurricane to hit to cause possible devastation. Nobody can tell ahead of time how many hurricanes in a season will strike land. One should always remember that, and be prepared, such as by following the NOAA/NWS storm tracking page and FEMA hurricane preparation guidance. And with the last couple of seasons seeing major hurricanes (some making landfall), preparedness takes on a new urgency.

But are we really seeing more of these major hurricanes, or is it just an impression — or coincidence?

Hurricanes Are Getting Stronger

The fact is that global warming is loading the dice when it comes to hurricane strength, with abnormally warm water being one of the culprits because it has the potential to increase hurricane power. Two of the most powerful hurricanes in recent history, Harvey and Florence, gained immense strength in very little time, and one of the reasons was that the sea surface temperature of the water in its path was running well above normal. In the case of Harvey, Gulf waters were warmer than any time on record, and temperatures along Florence's path were 3.6°F (2°C) hotter than normal. That warmer water is linked to human-caused warming due to emissions from burning coal, oil and gas. And it is worth noting that, after further analysis, hurricane Michael was upgraded to a category 5 in April 2019, months after it hit in 2018.

But it is not just the wind and strength of a hurricane that are amplified by climate change: global warming can also increase the amount of rain that hurricanes bring. Warmer air holds more moisture (read: more water to fall when it rains), and global average temperature is currently about 1.8°F (1°C) warmer than it was in the late 1800s. In fact, a study found that the record rainfall from Harvey was roughly three times more likely and 15% more intense than in a world without global warming. Another study found that higher ocean heat content and sea surface temperatures make hurricanes such as Harvey "more intense, bigger, and longer lasting and greatly increase their flooding rains."

Furthermore, research suggests that there has been an increase in intense hurricane activity over the past 40 years, and since the mid-1970s the number of strong hurricanes reaching categories 3 and above has roughly doubled.

So, while we wait for this hurricane season to develop, let's be mindful of probabilities, a changing climate, changing conditions, and most of all, preparedness. It reduces risks, helps ensure communities withstand the next storm, and can save lives.

Astrid Caldas is a climate scientist with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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