The string of Hurricanes that devastated parts of the Caribbean and the US South East in 2017 make it harder for deniers to dismiss climate change. The US has been hit by a number of dramatic storms in recent years. This includes Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Matthew. Now Harvey and Irma join the list of record breaking storms that have ravaged the US.
It would be reckless to say that climate change is solely responsible for any one hurricane or any one extreme weather event. However, it is fair to say that extreme weather offers a powerful teaching moment. Because climate change can be hard to visualize, hurricanes provide a unique opportunity to help people understand the dynamics at play. Such storms kill people and destroy both homes and livelihoods. This dramatically demonstrates the impacts of global warming.
While we must concede that the dynamics of hurricanes are complex, basic physics indicates that as the earth and its oceans warm we see higher wind speeds with more precipitation.
Climate research continues to point to the link between climate change and extreme weather. This connection is being made by a growing body of science that is increasingly hard to intelligently refute. Climate scientists like Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research draws on thermodynamics to argue the physics of higher temperatures means more atmospheric moisture and this translates to increasing storm intensity.
Here are three ways in which climate change is connected to intense storms. 1) Our earth including our oceans are warming and the water in the Gulf of Mexico is at a record high. 2) Warmer oceans push more water vapor into the atmosphere, driving both more intense wind speeds and more rainfall. 3) Sea-level rise caused by climate change exacerbates storm surges.
Climate models have long suggested that we will see more intense extreme weather as the earth continues to warm.
When Katrina hit the link with climate change was considered to be consistent with the models but a clear link was elusive. In the years that followed scientists have developed new analytical approaches. When combined with technological advances in the form of more powerful supercomputers scientists are seeing stronger evidence supporting the link between global warming and extreme weather.
Even before Katrina made landfall in 2005 scientists were publishing research that suggested warmer ocean temperatures were powering hurricanes with stronger winds and more rain. However this research could only make general statements about the climate not individual weather events.
In 2012 Superstorm Sandy seemed to augur a change in the scientific narrative. Some argued that all storms are being impacted by climate change.
Advances in attribution science are making it possible for scientists to say that climate change is playing a role in some extreme weather events. Contemporary attribution science is moving us closer to being able to link individual storms to climate change.
Although not all climate researchers see attribution science as the holy grail, most agree that it is increasing our ability to make the connection between climate change and individual storms. Scientists are increasingly able to say that an individual storm is statistically more likely to have occurred due to global warming.
For years climate scientists have predicted more intense rainfalls sometimes called rainbombs. Hurricane Harvey, is consistent with these expectations. The storm decimated Barbuda and caused the most extreme rain event in Texas history. In just three days, more rain fell on the Texas Gulf Coast than the amount of water that flows out of the Mississippi River in three full weeks.
Just days after Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain on Texas hurricane Irma hit slamming into the Caribbean before moving on to Florida. Intense rainbombs have been linked to climate change. Almost five years ago it was becoming clear that burgeoning levels of atmospheric CO2 can adversely impact rainfall. The flooding caused by intense rainfalls and storm surges are also linked to climate change. We have seen biblical rainfalls and flooding in Louisiana, South-Carolina, the Balkans, Egypt, UK, Japan, and Colorado.
For years climate scientists have predicted more intense hurricanes and more intense rainfalls. Hurricane Harvey is but the most recent storm to inundate Houston. Days after Harvey struck Irma made landfall. Sustained wind speeds have made Irama the strongest hurricane in history. In terms of accumulated cyclone energy (a measure that combines a hurricane’s wind speed and size) Irma broke a record in the tropical Atlantic. Irma sustained 185 mph wind speeds for for 37 hours which is the longest any cyclone has maintained that intensity. Three consecutive days as a Category 5 hurricane is also a record. Hurricane Irma’s sustained 185 mph wind speeds are well above the threshold for a category 5 hurricane.
Irma generated winds and waves that were so strong in the Caribbean that it registered on seismographs that are designed to measure earthquakes.
Intense storms are happening with increasing frequency. Hurricane Harvey is the third 500-year storm to hit Houston in just three years. Harvey made landfall at the end of August, then Irma and Katia struck around the same time early in September and now Jose is poised to strike the Bahamas and possibly even Florida on September 18th. These four hurricanes spanned the Atlantic ocean stretching from the US mainland to West Africa. Together these hurricanes produced more total energy than any group of hurricanes ever has in the Atlantic.
The sheer number of hurricanes coexisting side by side is noteworthy because of what is called the Fujiwhara effect. This happens when two hurricanes collide sometimes resulting in a merging that can generate a giant storm. Although this is a rare event it happened in July 2017 when hurricanes Hilary and Irwin collided. As warmer weather spawns more intense hurricanes the collision of these storm may result in even more intense superstorms.
History will show that the unholy alliance between the fossil fuel industry, Trump and Republican lawmakers has actively undermined climate science. The fossil fuel industry is the primary cause of the climate crisis and their minions in the GOP use their political power to deceive Americans about the veracity of anthropogenic global warming.
Trump has denied the existence of climate change and as president he has led efforts to roll back efforts to deal with it. The Trump administration has launched an all out assault on science and the climate efforts of the Obama administration. Climate initiatives are under attack in Trump’s budget and GOP sponsored legislation.
Trump has pulled the US out the Paris Climate Accord, killed environmental regulations and facilitated the extraction of fossil fuels. This administration has even undone climate resilience initiatives like federal flood standards that help to protect Americans from extreme weather.
Trump and GOP legislators are not the only political impediments to climate action. Republican state Governors are also a big part of the problem. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has outlawed any mention of climate change by public officials.
Not all Republicans deny reality. The Republican mayor of Miami has publicly berated Trump and the GOP for their failure to accept climate science and act accordingly. As reported recently in the Miami Herald, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said, “this is the time to talk about climate change.”
Regalado lambasted Trump and his administration for refusing to acknowledge the connection between climate change and more intense and destructive storms.
“This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change,” Regalado told the Miami Herald on September 8. “If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”
Sadly, Regalado is unlikely to get much support from the EPA. Agencies like the the EPA
are viewed with immense contempt by most Republicans. The GOP even put forward legislation to kill the EPA outright.
Trump’s intent to dismantle the EPA became clear when he appointed Scott Pruitt as the head of the agency. Pruitt is a climate denier and former fossil fuel lobbyist. Pruitt may now be the head of the EPA but he is still a fossil fuel industry advocate. He has declared war on regulations and the facts. In his bid to decimate environmental protections and climate actions Pruitt has aggressively neglected his responsibilities to safeguard Americans.
Pruitt rejects climate science and ignores research that that connects hurricanes to global warming. Pruitt even suggested that those who want discuss the cause of these storms are somehow being, “very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.”
The truth is that it is the height of insensitivity to ignore the causes of these storms. Failing to act on what we know is the definition of stupid. As paraphrased by the Herald, Mayor Regalado said, “failing to address the underlying cause will doom major US cities like Miami to keep repeating the same mistakes, leaving Americans unprepared to cope with ever-worsening natural disasters.”
Despite the inaction of Pruitt and the rest of the Trump administration Regalado is trying to secure a $400 million dollar obligation bond to help the city make necessary improvements to its storm drains and pumping system.
“You know, for those who say we don’t believe in the bond issue because we can do that later, no, it’s happening now. We got [Hurricane] Jose in the back and we got Katia. We got stuff going on,” he said. “So, I think this is a lesson for the people to say you know what? We have to be prepared.”
Extreme weather is already here and it will get far worse unless we are prepared to face the facts and act accordingly.