The truth about Hurricane Matthew and climate change


As I write this, Hurricane Matthew — a monster Category 4 storm — is just hours away from striking the central Florida coast. Millions of people have evacuated over the last day or so, and those who’ve stayed behind face an enormous risk from winds as high as 140 mph, from storm surges as great as nine feet or more, and other hazards such as falling trees. The entire nation, myself included, sends its thoughts and prayers to anyone who is in the storm’s path.

Increasingly, with global warming in the news, people are wondering whether there is a connection between hurricanes and climate change. The answer is complicated; most of the world’s top climate scientists say that not all of the evidence is in. It seems likely that a warmer planet doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more hurricanes, even though that’s becoming an increasingly popular misconception. However, what climatologists do believe is that climate change will make the hurricanes that do occur stronger than they would have been otherwise. That’s largely because tropical storms get their fuel from warm ocean water. And the water in the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico has been hotter than normal in recent years, because of the earth’s rising temperature.

As Hurricane Matthew churned slowly through the Caribbean last week, it intensified from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane (the highest rating) in less than a day — a remarkably fast transformation — and has since retained its strength for days. Many experts say that intensity is a characteristic of climate change. Here’s an explanation:

Matthew also showed a very rate of rapid escalation to Category 5 status, and a long persistence at very strong hurricane strength, that is noteworthy. Explosive intensification and long life at intense strength are certainly the kinds of attributes we’d expect to see more often as a warming climate heats the oceans and provides more fuel for the most intense hurricanes.

“The rapid intensification certainly is up there,” said Greg Holland, a hurricane expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He called the rate of intensification for Matthew “in the very top echelon.”

“Its rapid intensification to Category 5 when it was in the southern Caribbean was not forecast by any model, including my own. Right now, it looks a little bit mysterious,” added Emanuel.

These storm traits aren’t proof of anything, of course — they’re merely consistent with the notion of warming making storms worse.

In truth, though, perhaps the most direct way in which a changing climate affects the storm involves sea level rise, several researchers said. It is hard to dispute that, as sea level ticks steadily upward year after year, a place like Florida grows more imperiled by storms that can hurl large parts of the ocean inland.

Other experts note how unusual it is to see such a powerful storm in October, so late in the hurricane season:

The storm has surpassed several milestones as one of the strongest, longest-lasting hurricanes of its kind on record. But on top of that, scientists note, it’s atypical for this time of year. 

Matthew is the only hurricane of this strength to persist this many October days since 1963, noted Colorado State University meteorologist Philip Klotzbach, an expert in Atlantic hurricane forecasts.

Given the bizarre behavior of Hurricane Matthew, it certainly looks like something is up. It’s one more piece of evidence — much like the floods that devastated Baton Rouge this summer — that the impact of global warming is already here, and the pace of events is accelerating. Meanwhile, there’s been no serious discussion of climate change in the U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates. Maybe a direct hit from Matthew — and the dire consequences — would change that equation.

Read more about the link between climate change and Hurricane Matthew from the Washington Post:

Here’s more coverage from the Huffington Post:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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