Have hurricanes like Florence, Maria, and Harvey become deadlier and more destructive because of human-caused changes in Earth’s climate system?
by Anne Polansky
Sr. Climate Policy Analyst
From September 14-18, 2018 Hurricane Florence dumped more than 19 trillion gallons of water on the Carolinas with record-breaking rainfall that flooded most highways and roads, caused 16 major rivers to overflow, and produced powerful floodwaters that are still, today, impeding normal activity and inflicting additional damage and loss of life. The first storm-related death occurred on September 13, a day before Florence made landfall, and the death count has risen nearly each day since to reach the current count of 48 at the time of writing. Nearly 50 people of all ages, genders, and races have lost their lives, caused either directly or indirectly by the hurricane and its aftermath. Have no doubt, the mortality rate will continue to rise, possibly to triple or even quadruple digits, for months to come. Property damage and destruction is already immense and overwhelming. Already we are seeing damage appraisals in the tens of billions of dollars, primarily due to destroyed housing stock and other real estate. The full extent of Florence’s devastation to the Eastern Seaboard and its residents won’t be fully known or understood for a long time. Recovery will be difficult and slow for many and, for some, recovery may not happen at all.
Have hurricanes like Florence, Maria, and Harvey become deadlier and more destructive because of human-caused changes in Earth’s climate system? Given the heavy toll to life and property being exacted on large populations, not just by Florence but by Maria, Harvey and others, this is a fundamentally important question. A vast amount of relevant knowledge and information has been produced by a robust US federal climate change research effort that goes back decades and represents the world’s largest scientific investment of its kind. Americans are entitled to the fruits of this taxpayer-funded investment in the form of truthful answers regarding these increasingly unnatural, natural disasters from our elected officials — including the US President.
Yet, in the wake of these devastating storms, the American people have not heard a word from the White House regarding the well-established causal link between rising global average temperatures that disrupt Earth’s climate system and these increasingly extreme weather events.
Not. One. Word.
As American citizens, we have a right to know what US federal scientists know. The US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) was founded by the federal government in recognition of just how much weather and climate affects all aspects of our lives. The USGCRP is a robust, interdisciplinary, interagency climate science research program that has been well-funded year after year going back to the 1980s. It produces vast amounts of critically important and useful information about the world in which we live. There exists a vast supply of taxpayer-funded data collection, research, analysis, and scientific reporting about human-caused changes in Earth’s climate system and how these changes affect weather and weather patterns.
So, we have questions for the White House.
For Florence and so many recent hurricanes, there are many questions that are important to ask, perhaps starting with this one: did so many have to die? Did so many have to lose their homes and their way of life? Could we have saved lives and property by knowing more, preparing more, doing more? If so, what could have been done? Why are recent hurricanes like Florence, Maria, and Harvey so dangerous and destructive – and does climate change have anything to do with it? In what particular ways are the hurricanes of today different from hurricanes of the past? What sort of dangers during and following a hurricane can we expect and how can we better protect ourselves from these dangers? What are US federal scientists saying about this? What are we learning about hurricanes that could help communities across the nation be better prepared? How can we save lives and protect our homes and our built environment from these extreme events?
Let’s start with this simple two-part question:
1) Was Hurricane Florence affected by changes in Earth’s climate system resulting from rising global average temperatures?
The answer is a resounding YES. Hurricane Florence bore the indelible signature of climate change. Period. Exclamation point.
Human-caused climate change is the force acting behind the scenes to make hurricanes much deadlier and more dangerous than they have been in the past.
2) If so, then how and in what ways?
More specifically, how is this driving force we call climate change or climate disruption actually affecting the weather, specifically hurricanes?
We can think of it this way: as steroids are to athletes, climate change is to hurricanes. How so? When compared with past hurricanes unaffected or less affected by rising global average temperatures, the science is telling us that today’s Atlantic hurricanes are...
… getting stronger, faster. Tropical storms in the Atlantic are intensifying faster now, and as the oceans continue to absorb heat we can expect this intensification to, well, intensify going forward. Florence gained strength quickly.
… moving northward. Tropical storms that intensify out in the ocean to become Category 4 or 5 hurricanes are tending to follow more northward pathways (the science geek term is poleward migration). So, rather than passing over the Caribbean, or ducking under Florida to strike the Gulf Coast, or even choosing any spot along Florida’s long coastline, Florence made landfall midway up the coast of North Carolina. Florence traveled unusually far north for such an intense storm; mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states should take note.
… moving more slowly. Tropical storms and hurricanes in a climate-changed world are taking their sweet time. On average, they are moving more slowly and thereby inflicting heavier damage. This was certainly true of Hurricane Harvey, which stalled out over coastal Texas for several days. Stationary hurricanes drop high volumes of water in one spot, creating massive flooding.
… worsening and inflicting more coastal damage because of sea level rise (SLR). This phenomenon has been well-established and is only a point of contention among coastal real estate developers, who were behind the North Carolina legislature’s ridiculous 2012 law that prohibited coastal communities from relying on scientific data regarding SLR. Developers went into apoplexy following a dire prediction by the state’s Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) that sea levels along the North Carolina coast over the next century could rise well over three feet! Bitter divisiveness in the state ensued, but peace and sanity were eventually restored when the Commission released a revised study focusing on the shorter-term future. (By the way, the CRC was right the first time. According to the National Academy of Sciences, average expected sea level rise by the year 2100 ranges from 1.6 to 3.3 feet, with some studies showing 6 feet!) Even the real estate community woke up and smelled the coffee when you could see, plain as day, that SLR was already wreaking havoc on places like the Outer Banks. The sea level off the Carolina coast has already risen about a half-foot since 1970. A recent analysis determined these higher sea levels caused the Hurricane Florence to “significantly affect” about 11,000 more homes than it would have absent SLR. The related storm surge affected over 51,000 homes by pushing 25 percent more water over each property. If we can believe the prediction that in 30 years SLR will exceed one foot, the same storm will compromise at least twice as many properties. Even Zillow gets it. They saw serious risk for the lucrative coastal real estate economy (can you say massive devaluation?) and needed to know how much. So, Zillow commissioned a study that ran a worst-case scenario (i.e. no effort to mitigate the problem) which projected a future in 2100 in which nearly two million homes would be – both literally and figuratively – underwater. Housing stock in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Texas worth $882 billion would essentially be underwater: sunk, mortgage and structure alike.
… gathering and dumping a lot more water. Warmer air and sea surface temperatures, higher than ever in recorded history – about 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit above average – pump growing volumes of water into hurricanes, water that becomes record-breaking rainfall. A team of scientists led by Kevin Reed and Alyssa Stansfield at Stony Brook University ran computer models with real-time data from Florence and published a jaw-dropping study on September 12, a full two days before Hurricane Florence T-boned Wrightsville Beach. Hurricane Florence was dumping 50 percent more rain near the coast in our current climate-altered world than the same storm would have done absent human-caused global warming. Let that sink in. Florence carried and dumped 50 percent more water onto the Carolinas than it would have in a natural, normal, unaltered global climate system; that is, to say, a world with an atmosphere not super-saturated with greenhouse gases emitted by humans since the Industrial Revolution. Those wishing to learn more can read Chapter 9 of the Climate Change Special Report (CCSR) issued in December 2017 by the USGCRP. The CCSR established the scientific foundation for the upcoming Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) of global climate impacts in the United States, to be released in December 2018. (It is important to note here that the anti-science, climate-denying Trump White House did not meddle with the CSSR, as the George W. Bush White House was prone to do with federal climate science reports and is not expected to tamper with the NCA4 reports. We will leave to our readers to speculate as to why this is so.)
We can know President Trump had been skillfully briefed in preparation for his September 19 requisite disaster-site tour through the Carolinas, because he summed up the situation just about as accurately as he did awkwardly:
This is a tough hurricane, one of the wettest we’ve ever seen from the standpoint of water…Rarely have we had an experience like it and it certainly is not good.
Of course, “from the standpoint of water” immediately became a trending topic on Twitter, drew well-deserved mockery from just about everyone everywhere, and summarily bumped former President George W. Bush out of first place for strangest-and-most-hilarious malapropism ever uttered by a US president, including the one about putting food on your family. Awkward phrasing aside, Trump got it right, mostly. Florence was indeed extremely “tough” on anyone and anything within her reach, and definitely “not good.” However, it is a stretch to say “rarely have we had an experience like it.” On average, about three hurricanes collide with the US every five years. Hurricane Florence was also pretty darn wet to boot (if not the wettest): she broke rainfall records in many locations, dumped 19 trillion gallons of water on the region, turned roads and highways into rivers, and caused actual rivers to overflow their banks. So, our president had keenly picked up on the essential gist of the situation at hand: strong winds are not the primary threat posed by a hurricane. Instead, it is now the sheer volume of water in a storm that poses the greatest threat. Fewer rooftops were ripped from homes and tossed around like frisbees, but floodwaters were everywhere. Water as the primary and wind as the secondary threat has become one of the recognizable signatures of climate change.
Florence’s repeated reclassification from a tropical depression to a Category 4 hurricane and then back down to a Category 1 created a false sense of security — especially among folks in communities who had proudly suffered through a Cat-4 and emerged out the other side in one piece. Despite orders to evacuate and strong warnings of the dangers, many were deceived into underestimating the threat and made the lethal decision to hunker down and wait it out. A recent article in The Atlantic warned about this in “Don’t Pay Attention to the Hurricane Category” because doing so “can also guide families to ruin, especially if they make a survival decision on the basis of category.
As a matter of public policy, we probably need to consider either amending or appending the Category 1-5 rating system, developed in 1971 as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, because it rates a storm’s intensity as measured solely by its maximum sustained wind speed. A companion or hybrid rating system that indicates the total volume of water a hurricane is likely to carry around over our heads is probably a good idea: we need to be able to predict rainfall intensity in any one area, and to have some sense ahead of time just where we expect to see floodwaters.
Vehicle incidents in floodwaters are one of the most common causes of storm-related deaths, but are typically the easiest to prevent. Too many who ignored the “Don’t drown, turn around” warnings drowned on roads that had become dangerous rivers before you could say “don’t forget the milk.” These drownings, especially when avoidable, are deeply tragic. Who of us can keep from feeling the heart-break upon learning that little one-year-old Kaiden was torn from his mother’s arms by powerful floodwaters, his body discovered the following day. His mother had just driven around a barrier on a North Carolina road when she encountered deep water, pulled her son out of the car seat in an effort to rescue him and flee on foot, but the current was too strong.
A quote from Katharine Hayhoe, an outspoken atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, sums it all up pretty well in a recent email to Axios:
“Hurricanes are absolutely being affected by our changing climate, in many ways. As the world warms, the rainfall associated with hurricanes is becoming more intense; they are getting stronger, on average; they are intensifying faster; they are moving more slowly; and, as sea level rises, the storm surge from these events can be more damaging.”
Or, in my own words, climate change kills.
The silence in the White House regarding the whole topic of climate change and hurricanes is deafening…but we do have something to appreciate and be thankful for:
At least our top elected officials aren’t lying and spreading disinformation… about hurricanes, that is.
So far, CSPW can find no instance in which the Trump administration has attempted to censor, suppress, or otherwise twist, bend, or distort what scientists at NOAA and NASA have learned about hurricanes in our climate-disrupted world, even though they have applied heavy-handed censorship and suppression of all things climate at the Interior Department and EPA. No federal reports about hurricanes and climate change have been squelched or tampered with, as far as we can tell. Sure, plenty of information and educational material on the topic of climate change has been deleted from government websites, but the official website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at www.noaa.gov is replete with material about climate change and changing weather patterns. We have not heard a single rumor about a NOAA scientist being prevented from presenting at a conference or speaking with a reporter (as long as they go through appropriate channels), and we have no evidence that official statements about how climate change might be affecting hurricanes are being scripted by non-scientist political operatives, as we saw in spades under the George W. Bush administration.
An insightful opinion piece in a January 2018 issue of The New Republic, “Why is Trump censoring some agencies’ climate science, but not others?” offers a credible explanation for the seemingly disparate approach of the Trump White House regarding climate science in federal agencies:
The Bush administration interfered with regulatory and non-regulatory science agencies alike because it wanted the public to think that its environmental and public health policies were based on solid evidence. They feared what would happen if NASA or NOAA contradicted them on climate science. They considered science a powerful tool in shaping public opinion. But when it comes to climate and the environment, Trump officials are only interfering with agencies like EPA and Interior, where sound science is often a legal requirement for regulatory decisions. In other words, the Trump administration recognizes that science is powerful in a legal sense, but seems less interested in using science to shape public opinion.
Plenty of our posts from that era (primarily in the post-Katrina years of 2005 to 2007) cover this egregious behavior: NOAA scientists were being instructed to patently reject the notion that warmer oceans and altered ocean currents could possibly have any effect on hurricanes; NOAA was distributing official talking points that emphasized scientific uncertainty and dismissed causation between warmer oceans and stronger hurricanes. In fact, politically-motivated tampering with scientific evidence and reporting was a strong theme in the George W. Bush White House and provided the original motivation for the creation of CSPW, then Climate Science Watch, in 2005. CSW covered this topic extensively: see, for example, here, here, and here; this last link takes you to coverage of former Government Accountability Project client James Hansen going public with his accusation that NOAA, “by fiat” put out “biased information” on hurricanes in 2005 and 2006. The people in power at the time (read: VP Dick Cheney et al) did not want the average American associating automobiles and power plants with hurricanes, like Katrina, that brought so much tragic devastation to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region.
Despite extensive climate science denial during the George W. Bush administration, the truth about hurricanes and climate change grew so much currency that it broke through the political clouds and, with some notable exceptions, burns brightly in most corners of public discourse. President Obama turned things around and promoted open transparency and honest scientific discourse just as vigorously as President Bush had promoted secrecy and dishonesty regarding the climate change threat.
Nowadays, scientists are able to assess, with significant accuracy and precision, the effect of the overall climate change factor on specific storm systems, and can do so in real time as hurricanes develop. The study mentioned above, published 48 hours before Florence struck the coast, is just one piece of evidence demonstrating how far the science has come. The study attracted too little media attention – it was well-covered by the likes of Ars Technica and InsideClimate News – but most reporters either didn’t know about it or chose not to cover it. These decisions have some profound implications for the ways in which we can begin to better understand, plan, prepare for, and deal with the damages inflicted by these hurricanes on steroids.
If only the President of the United States of America would brag about all the wonderful climate science and scientists we are so fortunate to have here and share their important findings, instead of tearing them down by referring to climate change as a hoax, taking an anti-science stance, resurrecting dirty coal (which significantly exacerbates the climate problem), and pulling out of the Paris Agreement.
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Part Two of this series addresses the dangers associated with the flooding of hot-spots such as nuclear power plants, coal ash ponds, hazardous waste and chemical storage sites, and numerous industrial hog facilities throughout the Carolinas. The massive hog casualties (nearly 22,000 at last count) at dozens of facilities throughout the region caused by the flooding is being monitored closely by on-the-ground whistleblowers who are in regular contact with Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) staff. Please check out last week’s blog post providing an update on the hog mortality rate and the devastating pollution and associated public health threats arising from the flooding that causes bacteria-laden animal waste lagoons to breach and spread biohazards and other contaminants over large areas and surrounding communities.
Part Three of this series addresses our overall level of preparedness (or lack thereof) for the effects of climate change and potential solutions that will save lives, protect property, preserve ecosystems, and help us survive the increasingly harsh and unforgiving climate change impacts we can now expect.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.