Hurricanes and the Climate Crisis: What You Need to Know
Hurricane season is upon us — and this one could be a doozy.
After initially predicting a pretty typical Atlantic hurricane season, in terms of the number of expected named and major storms, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently revised its forecast, increasing the likelihood of an above-average hurricane season from 30 percent to 45 percent. This means residents of the Caribbean and those living along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico coastlines shouldn't let their guard down — and forecasters warn, there appears to be an increased chance of more major hurricanes:
The overall number of predicted storms is also greater with NOAA now expecting 10-17 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater), of which 5-9 will become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or greater), including 2-4 major hurricanes (winds of 111 mph or greater). This updated outlook is for the entire six-month hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.
There's little evidence to suggest that climate change actually creates more hurricanes. Indeed, NOAA itself explains that the revised forecast has more to do with diminished El Nino activity in the Pacific.
But there is abundant information indicating our changing climate is supercharging more and more of the ones that do form. And from Hurricanes Maria and Irma to Michael and Harvey, these storms are bringing almost unimaginable devastation much more frequently as a result.
Read on to discover how the climate crisis makes an already tough situation worse for millions of people all around the world.
Adding Fuel to the Fire
Carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas is warming our planet and driving climate change. It's throwing natural systems out of balance — to often devastating effect.
One result among many is that average global sea surface temperatures are rising — and when sea surface temperatures become warmer, hurricanes can become more powerful.
"For a long time, we've understood, based on pretty simple physics, that as you warm the ocean's surface, you're going to get more intense hurricanes. Whether you get more hurricanes or fewer hurricanes, the strongest storms will tend to become stronger," Dr. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and author of The Hockey Stick and The Climate Warsand The Madhouse Effect, explained to Climate Reality.
"Empirical studies show that there's a roughly 10-mile-per-hour increase in sustained peak winds in Cat 5-level storms for each degree Fahrenheit of warming."
Warmer oceans – especially deep ocean waters — can also allow storms to intensify quickly. So a once-relatively weak storm can cross the right stretch of (warm) water and become a major hurricane in a matter of hours.
With storms and forecasts changing fast, people can be under-prepared for the true intensity of the actual hurricane that makes landfall, potentially resulting in greater damage and even loss of life.
But looking at increases in sustained wind speed alone doesn't paint the full picture of a storm's destructive potential. A hurricane is more than just its winds — it's a major rainfall event accompanied by dangerous storm surge.
>> Free Download: Extreme Weather and the Climate Crisis <<
More and More, Water is the Real Story
"Other influences being equal, warmer waters yield stronger hurricanes with heavier rainfall. The tropical Atlantic Ocean has warmed over the past century, at least partly due to human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases," according to NOAA. "Most models agree that climate change through the twenty-first century is likely to increase the average intensity and rainfall rates of hurricanes in the Atlantic and other basins."
The bottom line: warmer temperatures create a greater chance of more intense storms.
This makes a lot of sense when you consider two facts:
1. Warmer air holds more moisture.
2. Higher temperatures evaporate more water from the surface of our oceans.
Taken together, these factors mean there's more water vapor for hurricanes to suck up as they travel over the sea surface, and more capacity to hold on to it. So when they make landfall, all that extra moisture returns to the Earth's surface as heavy precipitation.
At the same time that hurricane winds are getting exponentially stronger and the rain they carry is becoming heavier, sea levels are rising too. With higher seas, the storm surges from hurricanes (think: abnormally large waves driven to shore by hurricane winds) get higher too and move further inland.
The result: More water falling from above and more coming in from the ocean, hitting the coast harder and harder from both directions.
In the case of the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey last year, "sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico that [were] 2.7 - 7.2°F (1.5 - 4°C) above average" helped power a storm that dumped more than 60 inches of rain over parts of southeastern Texas. The highest-reported storm surge from Harvey (in Port Lavaca, Texas) was 7 feet above the mean sea level.
After all was said and done, the resultant catastrophic flooding and other storm damage made Harvey the second-most costly hurricane in U.S. history, behind only Hurricane Katrina. Plus, 68 Texans lost their lives, the most direct deaths from a tropical cyclone in the state since 1919.
The National Hurricane Center called the storm "the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in US history."
Learn more: Climate Change and Health: Hurricanes
So, is climate change really making hurricanes more dangerous?
The simple answer is yes.
But it's not all bad news — because we can solve the climate crisis. And we will.
Learn how in Climate Reality's™ free e-book, Extreme Weather and the Climate Crisis: What You Need to Know.
In it we explain in plain language how burning fossil fuels is driving a climate crisis and making our weather more intense and dangerous. And it's not just hurricanes, either. Wildfires. Flooding and drought. Extreme heat. This crisis is creating many kinds of wild weather all over the globe.
We also share stories about how extreme weather is affecting people just like you, in their own words — as well as ways you can join the climate movement and make a difference today.
A tornado tore through a city north of Birmingham, Alabama, Monday night, killing one person and injuring at least 30.
- Tornadoes and Climate Change: What Does the Science Say ... ›
- Tornadoes Hit Unusually Wide Swaths of U.S., Alarming Climate ... ›
- 23 Dead as Tornado Pummels Lee County, AL in Further Sign ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By David Konisky
On his first day in office President Joe Biden started signing executive orders to reverse Trump administration policies. One sweeping directive calls for stronger action to protect public health and the environment and hold polluters accountable, including those who "disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities."
Michael S. Regan, President Biden's nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, grew up near a coal-burning power plant in North Carolina and has pledged to "enact an environmental justice framework that empowers people in all communities." NCDEQ
- Report Urges Biden to Reverse Trump's Environmental Rollbacks ›
- US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- Biden Faces Pressure to Tackle 'Unfunded' Toxic Waste Sites ... ›
By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
By Jewel Fraser
Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.