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Has Global Warming Made Hurricane Damage Worse
Hurricanes are nature’s most violent and destructive storms. There is a small, yet potentially devastating, storm between climate scientists and climate skeptics over the nature of hurricanes. Scientific evidence points to the fact that global warming makes hurricanes more intense. Skeptics want to convince everyone that global warming has caused no change in hurricanes, so there is no need to pay attention to global warming. Skeptics have a point or two, but not many. Skeptics want absolute proof from scientists, but that’s not how science works.
Skeptics say that the number of hurricanes in the South Atlantic is not increasing, and they are probably right. Hurricanes begin as tropical storms, which occur randomly depending on weather conditions. Skeptics also say that the increased economic damage caused by hurricanes is due to increased construction along the coast. This is partly true, but it is also true that storm damage has increased because sea levels have risen, a measurable consequence of global warming. Those who listen to the skeptics and imprudently build floodplains are sure to suffer more damage from the storm.
Global warming has also made the oceans warmer later in the year. Water temperatures must be above 82°F for a tropical storm to develop into a hurricane, and the warmer the ocean, the more likely a hurricane will become stronger once it forms. Hurricanes are like heat engines, driven by warm air rising from the ocean like a chimney effect. The greater the temperature difference between the ocean and the upper atmosphere, the greater the upward velocity and the greater the wind speed.
A hurricane has a low pressure eye in the center and as air moves in, it moves counterclockwise around the low pressure area and spins faster and faster as it approaches the eye. Warm, moist air rising from the ocean forms cloud bands around the eye. As warm moist air produces rain, more heat is released, causing the air to warm even more and grow faster until it reaches the top of the storm. It has been cold and dry since reaching there. Cooler, drier air then sinks into the eyes and cloud bands. Note that cloud bands move very quickly around the eye, moving faster as they move inward.
A hurricane is like a heat engine. It is driven by energy from the warm ocean and cold temperatures in the upper atmosphere of the storm. Due to global warming the temperature difference is greater. The upper atmosphere gets its energy from the earth below. Meanwhile the rising carbon dioxide acts as a blanket, warming the oceans and cooling the upper atmosphere. As with all heat engines, the greater the temperature difference, the greater the power of the engine. As the cyclone moves forward, it absorbs energy from the ocean, thus keeping the ocean cool. Because of global warming, there is a larger area of warm water where the heat sinks deeper, both of which add more heat to the hurricane, causing it to grow in size and intensify.
The vapor pressure of water increases rapidly with temperature. In our warmer world, there is now 10 to 15% more water vapor in the rain bands that surround the eye of a hurricane. When Hurricane Harvey hits Houston, rain can be expected to increase in Houston. But coincidentally, Harvey lingered over Houston and continued to pull in warm, moist air from the Gulf, dropping more than 50 inches of rain.
Sea level rise along the Gulf Coast has been measured at about 30 inches. Heavy rainfall and sea level rise increased the storm surge and flooded parts of lower Houston. The storm stalling was a chance event and the skeptics were right when they said it shouldn’t have happened, but it did. Climate scientists attribute about 30% of the loss in Houston to global warming, taking into account storm intensity, wind damage, sea level rise and extreme rainfall.
Satellite images of Hurricane Irma, we hit Florida, were twice the size of Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992. Andrew killed 65 people, destroyed 65,000 homes and caused $26 billion in damage. Andrew was the most destructive hurricane to ever hit Florida, and Irma could be worse.
Florida was extremely fortunate that Hurricane Irma, wider than the entire peninsula, passed west of the peninsula. Very little storm surge occurred west of the peninsula. Winds on Irma’s front, rotating counter-clockwise, blew seawater away from the coast, leaving the sea dry for several hundred yards. The storm had weakened so much that the back of the storm hit land and the water moved toward the shore, so that the storm surge was only a few feet. If Irma had moved east of Florida, the storm surge at the front of the hurricane could have reached 15 feet, completely inundating much of Miami.
There you have it. Global warming has warmed the oceans and widened the temperature difference between the ocean and the upper atmosphere, both of which make hurricanes more intense. Warmer oceans hold more moisture in the air, leading to more hurricane rainfall, and rising sea levels have increased the height of destructive storms. This fall, five severe hurricanes formed in the South Atlantic, all of which made landfall and caused extensive damage. It could just be a chance occurrence, as skeptics claim, but this has never happened before.
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