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Why Hurricanes Like Harvey And Irma Are Man-Made Disasters

Human-led climate change is partly to blame for extreme weather.
Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma in the Atlantic.

There may be no natural disaster more humbling than hurricanes, with their gale force winds and flood-surges that destroy people’s homes, livelihoods and lives. Now two of them, back-to-back, have battered the United States and parts of the Caribbean and Cuba in the space of three weeks, including Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, which left much of Houston underwater, and Irma, which started out as a Category 5, the biggest hurricane to hit the United States since Andrew in 1992.

“The U.S. has never been hit, since we started collecting records in 1851, by two Category 4 or stronger hurricanes in the same season,” said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and co-founder of Weather Underground.

People often anthropomorphize these storms, as though nature is enacting her wrath on us for our treatment of the planet. The truth is more terrible than we may want to admit: extreme weather is not “just weather” but a result of human-led impacts on climate change, and it’s going to get worse.

We can blame some of the intensity on these storms on human activities, particularly our penchant for burning coal, extracting oil and cutting down tropical rainforests that have increased the levels of greenhouse gases—that trap heat in the atmosphere—and have caused global warming of 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s.

As much as two-thirds of total industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions can be traced to 90 major industrial carbon producers, 83 producers of coal, oil, natural gas, and 7 cement manufacturers write the authors of a new study in the journal Climate Change. And as much as one half of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere between 1751 and 2010 have been emitted since 1984.

Our current world temperature is an entire degree Celsius warmer than the average temperature during the years 1880 to 1920 and about half a degree hotter than the Holocene era—approximately 11,700 years ago. While that may not sound like a big deal, just a half degree Celsius hotter, and we face climate extremes that could kill off species, increase average temperatures beyond human habitability and more devastating natural catastrophes. A new study in the journal Earth Systems Dynamics noted that current temperatures are “about as hot as it got in a previous warm period, the Eemian (130,000 to 115,000 years ago) when the sea level was 6-9 meters (20-30 feet) higher than today.”

These authors write that this data shows “the current level of climate warming, with temperatures similar to the Eemian maximum, are dangerous.”

Hurricane Irma response, Florida, Florida Army National Guard
Soldiers with the Florida Army National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group pictured going to door to door performing search and rescue missions in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. (Credit: Florida Army National Guard.)

Continued warming, as is predicted by climatologists, can result in even more significant loss of polar ice sheets, sea level rise of as much as 16 feet by 2100, and thawing of the permafrost layer. This can release stored carbon in polar regions, which “raises the temperature further — produces an escalating cycle of warming that may beyond the human capacity to reign it in.”

One of the direct impacts of global warming is ocean warming, which expands oceans, melts polar ice and causes sea level rise, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UoCS)—and, frankly, any climate scientist you ask. Sea level rise may sound benign, but it has dramatic impacts on coastal and even urban settings. It further erodes shorelines, which allows for waves to come further inland. It also causes increased storm surges—when high winds push water inland, which is what we saw during Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and even in parts of Irma’s impact on the Caribbean, Cuba and Florida. In the worst case scenarios, sea level rise will bring permanent inundation, submerging once-dry areas. Australia’s Solomon Islands, have suffered this effect over the past two decades, where as many as five of the islands are no longer inhabitable due to sea level rise, and more may follow. The UoCS estimates more than $1 trillion worth of property is at risk in the U.S. for such inundation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) predicts that by the end of this century human-led climate global warming will increase the intensity of tropical cyclones globally. This will also likely increase the amount of rainfall these storms bring by about 10-15%, which could have disastrous flooding results.

And climate scientists from 13 federal agencies who created a Climate Science Special Report for the government (which they leaked to the New York Times out of concern that the Trump administration would censor it) suggest severe hurricanes will also get worse.

“Both physics and numerical modeling simulations indicate an increase in tropical cyclone intensity in a warmer world, and the models generally show an increase in the number of very intense tropical cyclones. For Atlantic and eastern North Pacific hurricanes and western North Pacific typhoons, increases are projected in precipitation rates and intensity. The frequency of the most intense of these storms is projected to increase in the Atlantic and western North Pacific and in the eastern North Pacific,” they wrote.

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