What Hurricane Ian Told Us About Climate Change & Our Future

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We’ve all clung these last two weeks to the terrible images of storm surges that flooded coastal areas, of homes dragged claw-like off their footings by raging seas, of cars floating in streets, of boats torn ragged and thrust upward in haphazard piles. Hurricane Ian had winds of nearly 150 mph when it made landfall in Florida. Hurricane Fiona worked its way from Puerto Rico to Newfoundland, registering as one of the strongest storms to ever hit the Canadian province, rendering communities unrecognizable.

Hurricanes Ian and Fiona were devastating, and they’re not alone.

As our climate warms, we’re experiencing stronger winds, higher storm surges, and record rainfalls during hurricane season— which is also why these storms are becoming more destructive and costly. Hurricanes — also sometimes called tropical cyclones —  are susceptible to rising temperatures. That means they thrive in warm conditions.

Here’s why. Warmer oceans fuel storms. Evaporation intensifies as temperatures rise, and so does the transfer of heat from the oceans to the air. As the storms travel across warm oceans, they pull in more water vapor and heat.  That means stronger wind, heavier rainfall and more flooding when the storms hit land.

As global average temperatures rise, the atmosphere will also hold on to greater quantities of moisture, meaning hurricanes could unleash stronger torrents of rain—as much as 14% more with 2 degrees Celsius warming, Thomas Knutson, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Wired. Knutson and colleagues are trying to make connections among variables to predict how hurricanes are changing as the world warms.

Sea levels are also expected to rise, contributing to stronger storm surges and devastating impacts on coastal areas. “We have very high confidence that sea level rise is going to continue, and that’s going to exacerbate any type of situation like the one we’re seeing now in Florida,” Knutson says.

The Language of Extreme Weather Events

Many other records of extreme weather destruction have been set over the past year. Already 2022 has seen record breaking rains and mighty floods, vast wildfires, unusual hail storms, early and persistent heat waves, and drought globally. Several derechos — large, long-lasting thunderstorms that move in a relatively straight line — have hit North America this year, wreaking havoc, causing deaths, and cutting power.

It’s important to have a shared vocabulary when we discuss the climate crisis and research regarding it.

Climate change adaptation: Measures taken in response to actual or projected climate change in order to eliminate, minimize, or manage related impacts on people, infrastructure, and the environment.

Extreme weather: Weather phenomena lying in the upper or lower 10th percentile of historical weather.

Infrastructure: All physical facilities that support and allow society’s functioning.

Mitigation: Taking active steps to reduce the source of the negative climate change, namely, greenhouse gas emissions or atmospheric concentrations, and most attention has been paid to mitigation.

Moving Forward from Weather Disaster

President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, and Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanne Criswell visited Puerto Rico this week to meet with those impacted by the storm and get a briefing on recovery efforts. Biden will also announce $60 million in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year that will “shore up levees, strengthen flood walls, and create a new flood warning system to help Puerto Rico become better prepared for future storms,” an official told CNN.

Later this week, the President will travel to Florida to survey damage from Hurricane Ian. More than 2.5 million people have been cut off from the grid.

The White House is keenly aware of the consequences of catastrophic weather. A September 1 press release discussed how “economic harms from extreme weather and climate events have become more commonplace due to increasing temperatures, sea levels, and economic development in areas vulnerable to these events.” The briefing acknowledged that these events are not part of a long pattern. To the contrary, “until this past decade, the country rarely experienced a year with more than a handful of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters.”

The impacts of climate change that produce more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate related events are creating new and increasing risks across global communities. Climate change poses risk to health, ecosystems, agriculture, infrastructure, and economically and socially vulnerable populations.

Scientists React to a Future with 2 Degrees Celsius Global Warming

Scientists are using models to sort through some of the complicated relationships among causation, a warming world, and extreme weather. Observed climate impacts on complex natural, built, and social systems expose considerable vulnerabilities to interconnected systems.

Energy system optimization models can help, as they incorporate climate change impacts to examine different energy futures and draw insights that inform policy.

A fascinating interactive personalized visualization tool is in the research stage that will allow a user to enter an address — their house, their school, or their workplace — and it will provide them with an AI-imagined possible visualization of the future of this location in 2050 following the detrimental effects of climate change such as floods, storms, and wildfires.

The challenge of providing a climate resilient transport system can look to research networks where digital and transportation experts come together to share insights and provide solutions based on common data sets, scenario assumptions, and assessment methods that allow for a comparable assessment over all modes of transport.

Hurricane Ian & the Aftermath of Extreme Storms

One of the most visible consequences of a warming world is an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. These ruinous weather events are, unfortunately, part of a troubling trend. The latest research concludes that strong storms like Hurricane Ian will become increasingly common, too. Most have an associated human influence. If you have any questions about anthropomorphic climate change, check out this data compiled by CarbonBrief.

With climate crisis impacts like these affecting every community, politicians are expected to balance science and legislation. The growing visibility of climate change’s effects offers politicians with what seems to be an opportunity. There has been some increase in politicians’ tendency to reference climate change in connection with severe weather events. Even publicly-backed climate risk insurance offerings can incentify farmers to explore their preferences for elements of insurance schemes that do not negatively affect incentives for wider farm adaptation.

Hurricanes are moving more slowly than they did decades ago. Wildfires are damaging more property and causing more deaths. Drought and other effects of climate change are forcing mass migrations. Whether or not people reconsider where and how they live, extreme weather events will almost certainly become stronger and deadlier. The threat is clear—how humanity will respond to it is not.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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