By Covering Climate Now staff
“This is only the first sip, the first foretaste, of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year until … [we] connect the dots,” Al Gore said 18 years ago this week. With waves 10 to 19 feet tall, Hurricane Katrina blasted into New Orleans on August 29, 2005, putting 80 percent of the city underwater. The first major US casualty event of global warming, Katrina left 1,800 people dead and thousands more homeless while causing at least $200 billion of economic damages.
The intervening years have borne out Gore’s baleful prediction. Fossil fuel burning has soared, pushing global temperatures higher and fueling more and more extreme weather. Record heat has been the most obvious result this Northern Hemisphere summer, but hurricanes may be next. Yesterday, Hurricane Idalia slammed into the northwest coast of Florida, bringing 125 mile an hour winds and storm surges of 10 to 12 feet. Parts of the state’s capital, Tallahassee, “may be uninhabitable for several weeks or months,” NBC News reported, citing the National Weather Service.
The Atlantic hurricane season lasts until November 1 — and peaks between now and October — so it’s crucial for folks to get up to speed on how hurricanes are connected to climate change. There are numerous online sources that can be refered to, including CCNow’s guides “Extreme Weather” and “Making the Climate Connection” and Climate Central’s “Extreme Weather Toolkit.”
The key point is that “climate change is making hurricanes more destructive,” Texas state climatologist Andrew Dessler wrote in a concise summary of what scientists know about climate change and hurricanes (more generally known as tropical cyclones). Today’s hurricanes are more destructive for three main reasons, Dessler added: Sea levels are higher, so storm surges crest farther inland; more rain falls in a shorter time, stressing drainage systems; and hurricanes themselves are stronger — there are more Category 3, 4, and 5 hurricanes today than there have been historically.
Driving all this: The world’s oceans are hotter than ever in recorded history, thanks to global warming, and hot oceans are food for hurricanes. Every one degree Celsius increase in ocean temperature increases a hurricane’s “destructive potential” by 50 percent, Jeff Masters, a meteorologist at Yale Climate Connection, told Bloomberg Green.
There are caveats. Hurricanes are caused by multiple factors; extra hot ocean water alone does not guarantee that a hurricane will form; wind shear also matters. And while climate change is making hurricanes more destructive, it is not necessarily increasing their absolute number. So while climate change isn’t spawning more storms, it is making them stronger and more destructive.
Hurricane Idalia is the latest incarnation of “the bitter cup” Gore warned about 18 years ago. It will not be the last. News coverage should help audiences understand: The extreme weather that has been battering so much of the planet will only get worse until humans find cleaner fuel sources. It’s that simple.