Hurricane season has only just begun and already we’ve seen two devastating hurricanes hit Texas, the Caribbean, and now Florida. Hurricane Harvey is estimated to have killed 70 people and had caused huge amounts of flooding damage. The total cost of Harvey is expected to be in the hundreds of billions as residents begin to total up the cost of the flooding that occurred with the hurricane.
This weekend Hurricane Irma battered Florida as it made land as a Category Four hurricane. As it has moved north it has been downgraded to a Category Two hurricane, but strong winds and heavy rains continue to cause massive amounts of destruction. Before reaching the USA, Hurricane Irma left a path of destruction through the Caribbean; millions have been displaced in Florida and the Caribbean.
In the USA and the UK, the topic of climate change and whether now is the right time to discuss it has been in the news and all over social media. Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA in the USA, is quoted as saying that ‘discussing climate change right now is insensitive to victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma’, and Caroline Lucas was also called insensitive after comments in parliament questioning the role of the UK government in reducing their contribution to climate change. The loss of life that has occurred in the entire region is terrible but without action, what has happened with Hurricane Harvey and Irma will only continue and get worse.
The events in the Caribbean and Florida over the past few days has got people talking and considering a very real danger to not just those living in that area, but the global population. This is exactly the time when we should be discussing the role of climate change, and the increasing number and intensity of these extreme events are clear indicators of it.
Rather than explain how hurricanes form, the video like here gives a very good explanation (thanks, BBC!). What gives a hurricane it’s intensity though is what is most important. Warm waters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea give the hurricane its power. The warmer the water, the more powerful the hurricane is likely to be. As climate change increases average global air and sea temperatures, there will be an increase in the temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Caribbean Sea, which in turn will lead to more powerful hurricanes.
It’s not always the wind that causes the most amount of damage. Flooding is also a major destructive factor and the storm surge that is created by the hurricane moving onto land contributes a huge amount to the flooding that follows. As the sea level rises, through either thermal expansion or ice melt, storm surges will have a much greater impact on flooding. Measured from a tide gauge just south of Miami Beach, since the 1990s, sea level has risen by approximately 9mm annually, approximately three times as high as the global average (BBC, 2017). This combined with an increasing intensity of hurricanes and subsequent storm surges mean that the videos and images seen in Florida and the Caribbean are just the beginning of what will be seen in the next few years and decades.
The loss of life from Hurricane Harvey and Irma are awful, but this is exactly the time to be talking about climate change and its role in these hurricanes. People are engaged in what is going on and they want to know more. If we can’t talk about it now, then when can we?