2.1.6 Stronger hurricanes

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"Unrestrained climate change means we will see many more [Hurricane] Harveys in the future." Professor Michael Mann, Director of the Pennsylvania State Earth System Science Centre

Rising temperatures are causing a supercharging of hurricanes, whereby hurricanes become more intense, produce more rainfall and cause higher storm surges - increasing the risk of major damage from such events. Indeed, the proportion of tropical storms that have rapidly strengthened into powerful hurricanes has tripled over the past 30 years. Tropical storms are also being diverted away from their usual tracks, meaning more coastal cities are now in their path.

In recent years we have seen a series of extremely powerful storms, including Hurricane Patricia in 2018 - the strongest storm on record with sustained winds over 200 mph. Indeed, of the seven cyclone regions studied by scientists, since 2013, five have had the strongest storm on record, which would be extremely unlikely just by chance.

One of these storms was Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines and killed 8,000 and displaced 4 million people due to a massive 20-30 foot storm surge. The ocean temperatures in the Western North Pacific had increased dramatically in recent years, at least in part due to global heating, providing more favourable conditions for the formation of such incredibly powerful storms.

Hurricane Harvey is estimated to have displaced 30,000 people and caused up to $125 billion worth of damages, making it one of the costliest tropical storms to ever strike the United States. Harvey broke records for the most rainfall ever from a single storm in the US, with some parts of Housten receiving over 1.5 m of rainfall. It’s been calculated that 20 trillion gallons of water fell over East Texas. Scientists studying the event concluded that climate change made the rainfall about 8-19% more intense, or, to put it another way, three quarters of the economic damages due to the intense rainfall were attributable to human caused climate change.

Just weeks after Harvey struck Texas, Maria, the strongest storm of 2017 (a category 5 hurricane), devastated the caribbean including the islands of Dominica, St Croix and Puerto Rico and killed 2,900 people. It is estimated to be the third costliest storm on record (next to Harvey and Katrina). Scientists who have studied this storm also say that climate change increased the likelihood of the record breaking extreme rainfall of this storm by nearly a factor of five.

In 2019, cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Over 600,000 people were displaced. In the city of Beira alone nearly 80% of homes and public infrastructure were destroyed and a cholera outbreak followed in the storm’s wake. The huge destruction caused by cyclone Idai makes it the costliest tropical cyclone ever in the South-West Indian Ocean basin. When asked whether Idai was linked to global heating, Dr Friederike Otto of Oxford University, said "There are three factors with storms like this: rainfall, storm surge and wind. Rainfall levels are on the increase because of climate change, and storm surges are more severe because of sea level rises."

Hurricane damage is exacerbated by losses in wetlands. Indeed, recent wetland losses are estimated to have increased the property damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017 by $430 million.