Can Climate Change Cause Hurricanes?

As we’ve seen in recent history, hurricanes are getting more powerful and becoming more frequent. We know that the climate is changing and that the earth is warming, but can this be the reason for the stronger and more common storms?

Giant ice wall in Antarctica.
Giant ice wall in Antarctica.

First of All, What is a Hurricane?

You’ve probably heard of hurricane Katrina, hurricane Michael, and almost certainly hurricane Irma and hurricane Harvey. But let’s dive a little deeper into what exactly these storms are and what makes them so vigorous and deadly.

Hurricanes originate in the Atlantic basin, which includes the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, the eastern North Pacific Ocean, and, less frequently, the central North Pacific Ocean.

But, before these storms are called hurricanes they’re called something else. tropical cyclones, tropical depressions, or tropical storms. The way that these are categorized isn’t too complicated. A tropical cyclone is a rotating low-pressure weather system that has organized thunderstorms but no fronts. Tropical cyclones with wind speed less than 39 mph are called tropical depressions, and tropical cyclones with wind speeds that exceed 39 mph called tropical storms.

Once a tropical storm’s wind speed exceeds 74 mph, it is called a hurricane. The World Meteorological Organization comes up with names for each storm by having a six-year rotating list of names. These names are used to track and identify these storms. Hurricanes use the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. It is a 1 to 5 rating, or category, based on a hurricane’s maximum sustained winds. The higher the category, the greater the hurricane’s wind speeds and their potential to cause some serious damage.

Picture from space of massive hurricane on earth

How does climate change affect hurricanes?

We know that global warming is heating up the oceans surface temperatures. Why is this important you might ask? Well, it’s because hurricanes strengthen over warmer waters. This is why hurricane season peaks around September. As the temperature of the ocean rises from humid air, warmer, and sunnier days throughout the summer, this is what fuels the power of a hurricane.

Since we’re seeing record-breaking temperatures & more moisture in the air across the globe, it comes as no surprise that we’re also seeing record-breaking hurricanes. Furthermore, If the surface temperature of the oceans continues to rise, we can also expect hurricanes to follow suit.

chart of global temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2020
chart of global temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2020

The north and south poles are seeing some of the largest increases in temperature on record. This is leading to a rise in sea level as the ice melts. Higher sea levels are going to mean greater flood depths. Although the sea level is rising slowly, this could have an impact in the coming decades.

chart of the global average sea level rise
chart of the global average sea level rise

The Cost of Hurricanes

Hurricanes are one of the most expensive natural disasters on the planet. It is estimated that hurricane Harvey had a total cost of $125 billion USD.  Two-weeks later hurricane Irma hit the united states which cost another $50 billion USD. These costly storms are only going to get more expensive as the climate changes and the oceans get warmer.

In conclusion, the earth is warming and it does not look to be slowing down whatsoever. Hurricanes are getting stronger and more expensive directly from climate change.

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