Hurricanes are among the most destructive natural disasters in the world. Over the past few weeks, the United States has experienced several large storms responsible for billions of dollars in damage. Hurricane Fiona dumped historic amounts of rainfall on Puerto Rico in September, causing severe flooding, mudslides, home damage, and power loss across the island. More recently, Hurricane Ian decimated coastal towns in Florida, completely wiping out houses, streets, and neighbourhoods with its waters.
Hurricane Ian also experienced a phenomenon known as rapid intensification—a process where the inner core of a hurricane strengthens very rapidly during its development. This can cause major flooding from rainfall and storm surges, as well as strong winds that can reach up to 200 miles per hour. The worst part about rapid intensification is that scientists have found it difficult to predict. Rapid intensification happens fast, as the name suggests, and meteorologists are scrambling to understand why these historic storms are occurring.
Warming Oceans & Atmosphere
If you’ve read the title, then you can guess what’s going on: climate change is warming the atmosphere and the ocean, worsening the intensity of natural disasters like hurricanes. The warm temperatures of the ocean and the atmosphere are increasing the occurrence of rapid intensification! North Atlantic tropical storms in the United States, in particular, are affected by this. They aren’t increasing in frequency, but they are increasing in intensity and length of time. These storms are stalling near coastal areas, and moving slower than ever.
Why is this an issue? Well, put simply, slow-moving hurricanes are more destructive than fast-moving ones. This is because the slow speed of a storm gives it more time to dump heavy rain over a larger area. Climate change is causing hurricanes to move slower, which means they can cause greater damage overall.
Sea level rise also plays a major role here. It’s already making coastal storms more damaging, and the trend is expected to continue. As sea levels increase, flooding becomes more common—and when combined with storm surges, it can become catastrophic, as it did in Florida this year.
The actual intensification of the storms can be attributed to the warmer temperatures of the ocean. Warmer oceans evaporate at a faster rate. Evaporation is one of the main drivers of atmospheric moisture content. As sea temperatures rise, so does evaporation, and so does water vapour in the atmosphere— more energy available to fuel hurricanes.
Even more frightening is that hurricanes are predicted to get stronger as our atmosphere continues to warm. Before this year had even started, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 65% chance of an above-normal hurricane season– making this the SEVENTH consecutive above-average hurricane season.
Given this trend towards more frequent and intense hurricanes, it’s essential for every coastal resident to be aware of potential oncoming storms.
It’s also important to consider how the fossil fuel companies that emit the most carbon dioxide should pay for their implicit contribution to storm damage. Entire communities have been wiped away because of these recent hurricanes. The largest fossil fuel emitters must be held responsible to a certain degree for their contribution to the warming global atmosphere.
During rebuilding, we should also consider how to build back stronger, more resilient, and more sustainable. Addressing the impacts of intensified storms is fruitless unless the root cause is addressed: greenhouse gas emissions.