How climate change can supercharge hurricanes

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When I was growing up near the US Gulf Coast, it was more common for my school to get called off for a hurricane than for a snowstorm. 

So even though I live in the Northeast now, by the time late August rolls around I’m constantly on hurricane watch. And while the season has been relatively quiet so far, a storm named Idalia changed that, hitting the coast of Florida this morning as a Category 3 hurricane. (Also, let’s not forget Hurricane Hilary, which in a rare turn of events hit California last week.) 

Tracking these storms as they’ve approached the US, I decided to dig into the link between climate change and hurricanes. It’s fuzzier than you might think, as I wrote about in a new story today. But as I was reporting, I also learned that there are a ton of other factors affecting how much damage hurricanes do. So let’s dive into the good, the bad, and the complicated of hurricanes. 

The good

The good news is that we’ve gotten a lot better at forecasting hurricanes and warning people about them, says Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane expert and professor emeritus at MIT. I wrote about this a couple of years ago in a story about new supercomputers being adopted by the National Weather Service in the US. 

In the US, average errors in predicting hurricane paths dropped from about 100 miles in 2005 to 65 miles in 2020. Predicting the intensity of storms can be tougher, but two new supercomputers, which the agency received in 2021, could help those forecasts continue to improve too. The computers were recently used to upgrade the agency’s forecasting model for this hurricane season. 

Supercomputers aren’t the only tool forecasters are using to improve their models, though—some researchers are hoping that AI could speed up weather forecasting, as my colleague Melissa Heikkilä wrote earlier this summer. 

Forecasting needs to be paired with effective communication to get people out of harm’s way by the time a storm hits—and many countries are improving their disaster communication methods. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, but the death toll from extreme weather has dropped quickly thanks to the nation’s early warning systems. 

The bad

The bad news is that there are more people and more stuff in the storms’ way than there used to be, because people are flocking to the coast, says Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher and forecaster at Colorado State University.

The population along Florida’s coastline has doubled in the past 60 years, outpacing the growth nationally by a significant margin. That trend holds nationally: population growth in coastal counties in the US is happening at a quicker clip than in other parts of the country. 

Several insurance companies have already stopped doing business in Florida because of increasing risks, and this year’s hurricane season could affect how readily residents are able to get insurance. 

And the expected damage from disasters affects different groups in different ways. Across the US, white people and those with more wealth are more likely to get federal aid after disasters than others, according to an NPR investigation. 

The complicated

Climate change is loading the dice on most extreme weather phenomena. But what specific links can we make to hurricanes? 

A few effects are pretty well documented both in historical data and in climate models. 

One of the clearest impacts of climate change is rising temperatures. Warmer water can transfer more energy into hurricanes, so as global ocean temperatures hit new heights, hurricanes are more likely to become major storms. 

Warmer air can hold more moisture (think about how humid the air can feel on a hot day, compared with a cool one.) Warmer, wetter air means more rainfall during hurricanes—and flooding is one of the deadliest aspects of the storms. 

And rising sea levels are making storm surges more severe and coastal flooding more common and dangerous. 

But there are other effects that aren’t as clear, and questions that are totally open. Most striking to me is that researchers are in total disagreement about how climate change will affect the number of storms that form each year. 

For more on what we know (and what we don’t know) about climate change and hurricanes, check out my story from this morning. Stay safe out there! 

Related reading

Forecasting is a difficult task, but supercomputers and AI are both helping scientists better predict weather of all types. Check out my 2021 story on forecasting supercomputers, and my colleague Melissa Heikkilä’s piece on AI forecasting from earlier this summer. 

Flooding is the deadliest part of hurricanes, and cities aren’t prepared to handle it, as I wrote about in 2021. New York City put in a lot of coastal flood defenses after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Then Hurricane Ida dodged those, as I covered after the storm. 

Millions lost power after Hurricane Ida. My colleague James Temple wrote about how crucial and difficult it is to keep the power on during disasters. 

Keeping up with climate  

This has been a summer of extreme weather, from heat waves to wildfires to flooding. Here are 10 data visualizations to sum up a brutal season. (Wired)

A new battery manufacturing facility from Form Energy is being built on the site of an old steel mill in West Virginia. The factory could help revitalize the region’s flagging economy. (The Guardian)

EV charging in the US is getting complicated. Here’s a great explainer that untangles all the different plugs and cables you need to know about. (New York Times)

→ Things are changing because many automakers are switching over to Tesla’s charging standard. (MIT Technology Review)

The first offshore wind auction in the Gulf of Mexico fell pretty flat, with two of three sites getting no bids at all. The lackluster results reveal the challenges facing offshore wind, especially in Texas. (The Guardian)

A Chinese oil giant is predicting that gasoline demand in the country will peak this year, earlier than previously expected. Electric vehicles are behind diminishing demand for gas. (Bloomberg)

→ The “inevitable EV” was one of our picks for the 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2023. (MIT Technology Review

Vermont’s leading subsidy program for small battery installations is getting bigger. (Canary Media)

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