The Impact of Climate Change and Monster Hurricanes

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Saturday, September 22, 2018
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There are several characteristics of the changing climate that are helping to increase the risks of damage from Hurricanes, even though global warming is not directly causing such a storm to spin up. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate researcher at Texas Tech, put the relationship between climate change and storms such as Florence as follows: "Hurricanes are absolutely being affected by our changing climate, in many ways. As the world warms, the rainfall associated with hurricanes is becoming more intense; they are getting stronger, on average; they are intensifying faster; they are moving more slowly; and, as sea level rises, the storm surge from these events can be more damaging."


What we Know on Climate Change and Hurricanes


Future climate change and associated impacts will differ from region to region.  Anticipated effects include rising sea levels, changing precipitation, and expansion of deserts in the subtropics.  Warming is expected to be greater over land than over the oceans and greatest in the Arctic, with the continuing retreat of glaciers, permafrost, and sea ice.


Hurricanes changing temperature


Other likely changes include more frequent extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires, heavy rainfall with floods, and heavy snowfall; ocean acidification; and species extinctions due to shifting temperature regimes. Effects significant to humans include the threat to food security from decreasing crop yields and the abandonment of populated areas due to rising sea levels.  


Hurricane Florence - COFL Science from Community of Lights on Vimeo.




Hurricane storm surge keyimage


Because the climate system has a large "inertia" and greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for a long time, many of these effects will persist for not only decades or centuries, but tens of thousands of years.


florence path abc mo 20180912 hpEmbed 16x9 608

Hurricane Florence Predicted Path as of Wednesday, September 12, 2018


Satellite Image of Florence During Landfall

Hurricane Florence could become the strongest hurricane on record to strike so far north if it makes landfall north of the border between South Carolina and North Carolina as a Category 4 or 5 storm. It brings multiple threats, including a massive storm surge at the coast, as well as a potentially catastrophic inland flood situation. 


Wrightsville Beach North Carolina 1

 Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina Before the Arrival of Huricane Florence


Florence flooding




Florence 4 flooded house


Fallen Tree


Florence 3

Images of the Destruction Caused by Hurricane Florence, September 2018


Flooding due to CSX Railroad


CSX Railroad Fought A North Carolina City’s Desperate Attempt To Prevent Devastating Flooding. Now, entire neighborhoods in Lumberton are under water for the second time in as many years.


Temporary Levee Built Too Late to Prevent Flooding From Lumber River


A temporary levee of dirt, gravel and sandbags was built over the railroad track in Lumberton over the weekend in an attempt to hold back Lumber River floodwaters.Not only did CSX refuse to allow the city to build the berm, it also threatened to take legal action if the city did, multiple people with knowledge of the situation told HuffPost. It wasn’t until local officials petitioned Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to intervene that they were able to begin construction of the makeshift wall late last week. Local leaders contacted Cooper’s office and the state Department of Public Safety on Thursday as Florence loomed off the coast of Wilmington and forecasts called for at least 2 feet of rain in the southeastern part of the state. Early Friday, Cooper issued an emergency order greenlighting construction of the berm at the railroad intersection, Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for the governor, told HuffPost via email. “CSX officials who were contacted did not consent to allowing for sandbagging of the tracks, arguing that there was no proof that it would work and that it would cause significant damage to their tracks,” Weiner wrote. “Upon further consultation and advice of local and state emergency management, the Governor issued an emergency order on Friday morning to allow for the construction of a temporary berm at the CSX railroad intersection.”

Houston Downtown Flooded

Downtown Houston Flooding Days After Harvey's Landfall in 2017


Destruction after Sandy

Destruction after Sandy in the New Jersey Coast in 2013


Destruction following hurricane andrew

Destruction after Andrew in Miami in 1992


Recent studies show that there may be ties between long-term climate change and some of this storm's characteristics:  There has been a poleward migration in where storms are reaching their peak intensity, which is related to the expansion of the tropics in a warming world. Hurricane Florence fits this pattern, as it's unusually far north for such an intense storm. There is evidence that tropical storms and hurricanes are moving more slowly on average, possibly explaining some of the behavior of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which stalled over coastal Texas for days.




There is also data showing more storms are intensifying rapidly in parts of the Atlantic, as Florence has, than in the past. This trend is expected to increase as the world warms.  Hurricanes that do form are tending to be more intense overall, and bring more rainfall, due to warming air and sea surface temperatures.


 storm eye and surge


Sea level rise from climate change increases the damage potential of any landfalling tropical storm or hurricane. In addition, a slew of studies has been published tying an increase in blocking weather patterns, like the one forecast to steer Florence into the Carolinas, to the loss of Arctic sea ice, but this is still a contested research area.




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