Quantcast
Climate

More Harvey-Sized Hurricanes Likely to Hit Texas

By Tim Radford

The probability that some city in the U.S. state of Texas will be hit again by Harvey-sized hurricanes, rainstorms that will dump half a meter of water in a short space of time, has increased sixfold in this century and will have increased 18-fold by 2100, thanks to climate change driven by global warming.

In the late summer of 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped 65 cms of water on the city of Houston in Texas. It was the start of the largest natural disaster in the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans in 2005. Harvey claimed an estimated 70 lives, and created more than $150 billion in damage.


Kerry Emanuel, a meteorologist and professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asked a simple question: How likely is it that hurricane-induced flooding of such magnitude could happen again?

He reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he looked again at the probabilities. Since 1899, only 11 U.S. hurricanes have brought with them rainfalls that measured more than 65 cms. Until Harvey, the most recent had been a hurricane called Patricia which dumped more than 50 cms in some parts of Texas.

For Texas alone, from 1981 to 2000, the chance of an event on the scale of Harvey or Patricia was 1 percent: that is, one chance in a hundred during any one year, with a high likelihood of such an event once every 100 years.

Harvey would once have counted as the storm of the century, and the chance of it hitting Houston made it an even more improbable event. Statistically, such a thing should happen once in 2,000 years.

But the past, Prof. Emanuel argues, is no longer a good guide to the future.

"When you take a very, very rare, extreme rainfall event like Hurricane Harvey, and you shift the distribution of rain toward heavier amounts because of climate change, you get really big changes in the probability of those rare events," he said. "People have to understand that damage is usually caused by extreme events."

He is not the only researcher to have looked at the statistics with alarm. More than one study has found that the Atlantic coast of the U.S. could face harder and more frequent battering as global temperatures creep up in response to ever-increasing use of fossil fuels that leave ever-growing ratios of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

One group has warned that coastal storms and floods could create new millions of U.S. climate refugees. The problem is not uniquely an American one: by the century's end, coastal flooding could be costing the nations of the world $100 trillion a year, as sea levels rise and extreme events such as tropical cyclones and storm surges become more intense, and more frequent.

Odds on Calamity

Some studies have concentrated on conditions for particular coastal cities such as Charleston or Seattle, where the once-in-500-year floods could in the next century happen 273 times more often.

Studies like these may sound alarmist: in fact, they have a simple, practical purpose. City authorities need to know if the odds of calamity are on the increase.

"Suppose you're the mayor of Houston, and you've just had a terrible disaster that cost you an unbelievable fortune, and you're going to try over the next few years to put things back in order in your city. Should you be putting in a more advanced storm-sewer system that may cost billions of dollars, or not.

"The answer to that question depends upon whether you think Harvey was a one-off—very unlikely to happen any time in the next 100 years—or whether it may be more common than you thought," Prof. Emanuel said.

"We are seeing for Texas an event whose annual probability was 1 percent at the end of last century, and it might be 18 percent by the end of this century. That's a huge increase in the probability of that event. So, people had better plan for that."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Politics
Jess Lundgren / CC BY 2.0

The Trump Administration’s ‘Dishonest’ Attack on Fuel-Economy Standards

By John R. Platt

The Trump administration's plan to freeze fuel-economy standards is "the most spectacular regulatory flip-flop in history," said a retired EPA engineer who helped to develop new the standards under the Obama administration.

Keep reading... Show less
Adventure
Lizzie Carr traveling down the Hudson River on her stand-up paddleboard. Max Guliani / The Hudson Project

Her Stand-Up Paddleboard Is a Platform for Campaigning Against Plastic Pollution

By Patrick Rogers

Lizzie Carr was navigating a stretch of the Hudson River north of Yonkers, New York, recently when she spotted it—a hunk of plastic so large and out of place that she was momentarily at a loss to describe it.

Keep reading... Show less
Science
The Ross Ice Shelf at the Bay of Whales. Michael Van Woert, NOAA

Scientists Study Ice Shelf by Listening to Its Changing Sounds

By Marlene Cimons

Researchers monitoring vibrations from Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf were flabbergasted not long ago to hear something unexpected—the ice was "singing" to them. "We were stunned by a rich variety of time-varying tones that make up this newly described sort of signal," said Rick Aster, professor of geosciences at Colorado State University, one of the scientists involved in the study.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
DSLRVideo.com / Flicker / CC BY-SA 2.0

'Go Out and Vote' Patagonia Endorses Candidates For First Time in Its History

Outdoor brand Patagonia is endorsing candidates for the first time in its history in an effort to protect the country's at-risk public lands and waters.

The civic-minded retailer is backing two Democrats in two crucial Senate races: the re-election of Sen. Jon Tester of Montana; and Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Animals
Desert Bighorn Sheep in Joshua Tree National Park. Kjaergaard / CC BY 3.0

Leaked Trump Administration Memo: Keep Public in Dark About How Endangered Species Decisions Are Made

In a Trump administration memorandum leaked to the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is directing its staff to withhold, or delay releasing, certain public records about how the Endangered Species Act is carried out. That includes records where the advice of career wildlife scientists may be overridden by political appointees in the Trump administration.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Disposable diapers add staggering amounts of waste to landfills. Pxhere

Dirty Diapers Could Be Recycled Into Fabrics, Furniture Under P&G Joint Venture

Disposal diapers can take an estimated 500 years to decompose. That means if Henry VIII wore disposables, they'd probably still be around today.

Although throwaway nappies are undoubtedly convenient, these mostly-synthetic items cause never-ending steams of waste that will take centuries to disappear.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
The swelling barrier lake after a landslide forced evacuations along the Yarlung Zangbo River. YouTube screenshot / CCTV+

6,000 Evacuated After Tibet Landslide

Six thousand people have been evacuated after a landslide in Tibet Wednesday blocked a river that flows downstream into India, creating a lake that could cause major flooding in the subcontinent once the debris is cleared, The Associated Press reported.

Chinese emergency officials announced the evacuations Thursday. The landslide impacted a village in Menling County, but no one was killed or injured, Chinese officials said.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Pexels

Carbon Capture: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Climate Change

By Daniel Ross

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report lays out a rather grim set of observations, predictions and warnings. Perhaps the biggest takeaway? That the world cannot warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5°C) over pre-industrial levels without significant impacts.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!