The severity of the hurricanes in the last few weeks, including most recent Hurricane Maria which may leave Puerto Rico without power for six months, is frightening in many ways, the most immediate being the extreme devastation of the communities in storm paths. With this, there are also longer-term types of concerns that come with the knowledge that weather events like these will happen again. Levels of controversy and consensus are very different nationally when it comes to the link between climate change and natural disaster, but the widely accepted conclusions that do exist guarantee that discussions of climate change will be a part of reacting to these events.
This past week, Dr. Erika N. Trigoso, Teaching Associate Professor at DU and specialist in Geographic Information Science, shed some light on hurricane formation and connection to climate. For a hurricane to form, a disturbance in the atmosphere, such as wind, is needed, as well as warm ocean water over 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Dr. Trigoso explained that since global warming trends warm oceans, it is becoming easier for this threshold to be met or exceeded which means the conditions for hurricane formation are happening more often. Additionally, as water temperature increases, so does hurricane strength. A one degree Celsius increase in water temperature could mean a two to three percent increase in storm strength.
The large number of Americans living in coastal areas is a major concern when it comes to hurricanes. As Dr. Trigoso pointed out, we don’t usually call weather events natural disasters unless there is a human impact. Harvey, Irma and Maria all impacted huge numbers of people, and this also has a clear connection to global warming. Storm surge was a large factor in why these storms were so damaging, and rising sea levels means higher surges. To illustrate this, Dr. Trigoso used an analogy: raising the floor of a basketball court without raising the rims means there will be more slam dunks. Similarly, rise in sea level with no change in coastal populations will mean more flooding.
Already, the various records set by the recent hurricanes are being shared, but it will be until the end of the season before climate scientists can form conclusions on 2017 as a whole. Some people will not discuss this as readily. Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency called it “insensitive” to the people of Florida to be analyzing the role of climate change in the wake of the storm. But quotes from others, including the Republican mayor of Miami and some hurricane victims themselves, say that now is a crucial time to talk about climate change. While it is important to be sensitive to and focused on those people recovering from major loss, examining climate change will be a way to better prepare for what is to come.
As Dr. Trigoso said, it does not take a rocket scientist to connect climate change and warming of the oceans with the kinds of hurricanes we are seeing. Many other climate scientists would likely agree that we are past the point of deliberating over the validity of climate change. Rather we must consider how to best understand the complexity of conditions that create natural disasters and the undeniable effects of climate change on our planet.