Over the last few decades, severe storms have ravaged the United States. Weather nightmare after weather nightmare has left millions scratching their heads and asking themselves,”Is this what climate change looks like?”
Hurricane Andrew destroyed Miami in 1992, leaving behind $25 billion in damage and killing more than forty people. Twenty-six years after Andrew, Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey left behind an unimaginable amount of damage in the U.S. and the Carribean. In 2011, an EF5 tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri; in just thirty-eight minutes 158 people were dead. Floods caused by massive thunderstorms blanketed the Midwest in 2008.
So, is this what climate change looks like? Scientists say, “absolutely.”
A Storm on the Horizon
In 2014, a team of more than 300 experts released the much-anticipated third National Climate Assessment (NCA3). The goal of the report was to show the American public how climate change is impacting the United States, and it was a doozy. The NCA3 found that severe weather is the most common way that most people experience climate change. Experts reported that human-induced climate change, “has already increased the number and strength” of some of these storms. Basically, the report echoed what scientists — like the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) — have been saying for decades: As the Earth warms, severe storms are becoming the new normal.
In the last thirty years, the entire world has experienced a pattern of increasingly higher than average temperatures. Scientists at the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) have kept track of global average monthly and annual records of combined land and ocean surface temperatures since 1880. Their data shows that average temperatures have risen 1.8°F (1°C) above pre-industrial levels as of 2015 and temps have been noteably high since the 1980s.
If that doesn’t seem like much to you, it is. NASA has said, if the temperature remains on that track, the consequences would be dire. The current rise in temperatures has already caused significant problems. Glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising at a terrifying rate. And, yes, severe storms are becoming more frequent and more powerful.
Severe Weather: The Terrible Gift of Climate Change
The United States is already seeing climate change manifesting itself in severe weather. For instance, hurricanes, thunderstorms, and possibly even tornadoes are being affected by climate change. James Elsner of Florida State University told Yale Climate Connections (YCC),”With warmer oceans caused by global warming, we can expect the strongest storms to get stronger.” Elsner is exactly right and Florida was one of the states to experience it last year.
The increasing devastation of hurricanes.
Hurricanes gain and lose speed depending on the temperature of ocean water and as established above, the temperatures have been rising. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was a perfect example of that; three storms, Harvey, Irma, and Maria, left an unbelievable amount of damage in the U.S. and Carribean islands.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25, as a Category 4 storm. Harvey left catastrophic flooding in its wake, destroying 203,000 homes. The storm spent 117 hours as a named storm and made landfall three times. Harvey is now the longest named hurricane on record.
— NWS Corpus Christi (@NWSCorpus) August 30, 2017
Shortly after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Hurricane Irma formed. Irma became the strongest Atlantic basin hurricane ever recorded outside of the Gulf of Mexico and Carribean Sea. On September 10, made landfall in Florida leaving sixty percent of the state without electricity and thousands homeless.
— TCPalm (@TCPalm) March 12, 2018
On the heels of those particularly severe storms, came Hurricane Maria. The massive hurricane made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on September 20. Now regarded as the worst natural disaster to ever hit the tiny Carribean island, the impact of Maria is still felt six months later. Nearly the entire island was left without power and running water for weeks after the hurricane struck.
When asked about the recent storms, Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said:
“In general, the way to think about it is: climate change has changed the environment that everything is happening in. When you add in the climate’s natural variability and then the right conditions come along, you can get a storm which is stronger than you might otherwise have expected.”
In fact, this extends to various types of severe storms, not just hurricanes.
That’s not your average thunderstorm.
As the Earth warms, water from the oceans is evaporating into the water. As that happens, the amount of water vapor the atmosphere can hold expands. This expansion leads to thunderstorm changes. As a result, millions of people are at risk of flooding. In 2008, massive amounts of precipitation fell across the Midwest for three weeks causing widespread flooding across five states. That same year, a report released by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program pointed directly to climate change as the cause of flooding.
Further, as severe storms become more frequents, lightning increases.
A 2014 study, published in the journal Science, explained that lightning will increase 12 percent per every degree Celsius (about 2°F). The increase in lightning strikes is worrisome considering that half of all the acreage that has been burned by wildfires, was started by a lightning strike.
In other words, get ready for heavier rain and more lightning with that next thunderstorm.
Tornado Watch: are tornadoes affected by climate change?
Tornadoes are the big unknown in the discussion about severe storms and climate change. In 2011, Joplin, Missouri was destroyed by a massive EF5 tornado. However, scientists still do not have enough data to determine if those kinds of storms are a result of climate change.
Tornado records only date back to 1950 in the United States. That, along with the fact that Tornado Alley wasn’t as populated in the early part of the 20th century, is a problem. According to the NCA3, “The data on the number and intensity of severe thunderstorm phenomena (including tornadoes, thunderstorm winds, and hail) are not of sufficient quality to determine whether there have been historical trends.” The report goes on to state that, “This scarcity of high-quality data, combined with the fact that these phenomena are too small to be directly represented in climate models, makes it difficult to project how these storms might change in the future.”
In reality, we probably won’t know the answer to this question for many years.
Severe Storms, The New Normal?
The short answer to that question is: Yes. Unless we take drastic steps, we will continue to experience severe storms. Hurricanes like Maria and Harvey will occur again. Massive flooding in the Midwest is going to persist. Lightning strikes will become more frequent. As a result, millions of people in the United Staes will continue to be displaced by extreme weather events and hundreds will die.
Sadly, as of now, we are not doing enough to stop climate change. In 2017, Erik Solheim, the head of the U.N. Environment Program, said,”We still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future.” If the populous does not wake up and really start changing their habits, our planet is in terrible peril. No longer can a statement like that be considered hyperbolic. Climate change is a very real and very dangerous threat to our wellbeing.
Featured Image: Public Domain, by U.S. Army Corp of Engineers/Alan Dooley, Wikimedia Commons