Hurricanes and Climate Change: A Marriage Made in Hell

In addition to damage from high winds, rising sea levels would threaten even more people.

Hurricane Isaac
In a satellite image taken earlier today, Hurricane Isaac is seen churning in the Gulf of Mexico after making landfall on the Louisiana coast. (NASA NASA/Reuters)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

How high can we go on the hurricane rating scale? “Even though Category 5 storms, which sustain catastrophic gusts that blow at 157 mph or higher, are extremely rare, scientists predict an increase in strong hurricanes with global warming,” reports Discovery.

“For now, about 200 mph is the highest that hurricane winds can theoretically get—and only three land-falling storms have come close in the past century...With warming, according to some models, the upper boundary could reach 220 mph.”

But according to John Abraham, a thermal scientist at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, there’s more to worry about with a hurricane than just wind speed. Discovery summarized his thoughts, noting, “The size of a storm, the amount of rain it dumps, and the size of the wave surges it produces also determine how damaging a hurricane will be, even though the category scale doesn't take those details into account. All of those factors are likely to get worse with climate warming . . . As glaciers melt and oceans rise, for example, storm surges are likely to be higher. A warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, increasing the potential for heavier rains. And warmer sea surface temperatures increase the likelihood of storms whipping up fierce winds.”

MORE: The New Orleans Hurricane Anniversary Is Here, and Residents Ask, ‘Katrina Who?’

Rising sea levels were also mentioned in a February story by U.S. News & World Report, which said, “Climate change could cause unprecedented hurricanes to pound New York City and other coastal cities over the next hundred years, according to new research by scientists at Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sea level rise and warmer water temperatures could potentially cause ‘a storm the likes of which have not been seen,’ says Michael Oppenheimer, a geosciences professor at Princeton.”

And the Union of Concerned Scientists states, “Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones have always bedeviled coasts, but global warming may be making matters worse. Sea level is rising and will continue to rise as oceans warm and glaciers melt. Rising sea level means higher storm surges, even from relatively minor storms, which increases coastal flooding and subsequent storm damage along coasts.”

But before we start to panic, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory weighs in with the observation that, “It is premature to conclude that human activities—and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming—have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane activity. That said, human activities may have already caused changes that are not yet detectable due to the small magnitude of the changes or observational limitations, or are not yet properly modeled.”

However, they add, “There are better than even odds that anthropogenic warming over the next century will lead to an increase in the numbers of very intense hurricanes in some basins—an increase that would be substantially larger in percentage terms than the 2-11% increase in the average storm intensity.”

And it’s not just those along the coast who need to worry. Discovery also reports that, “it's actually the folks farther inland that typically see the most fatalities, due to intense rains causing flash floods and mudslides, as well as tornadoes spawned by tropical cyclones.” They add that, “One of the most vulnerable states, according to the analysis, is Arkansas. That's primarily because the state isn't well-equipped to respond to disasters or to communicate to its citizens what they should do in case of an emergency.”

According to Fox News this morning, “With its current rate of movement, [Hurricane] Isaac's center could be over the southern part of Arkansas by Friday.”

Do you think there’s a correlation between global warming and extreme weather conditions?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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