Talking Points

Global Warming and Hurricanes: The shape of things to come?

‘We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’ ~ Native American Proverb

‘The earth we abuse and the living things we kill will, in the end, take their revenge; for in exploiting their presence we are diminishing our future.’ ~ Marya Mannes, More in Anger, 1958

The Politics of Denial

Believe it or not, there are some alive today (especially in America) who believe that we (human beings) overestimate the consequences of our actions in relation to how it may impact the environment. The truth of the matter is, we are the only species of lifeform on the planet which can and is in fact capable of controlling or altering the world for better or worse. This is nothing new, as humans have been influencing the climate long before the Industrial Revolution.

According to an analysis of Antarctic ice (reported in the magazine Science), levels of the greenhouse gas methane rose steadily in the atmosphere in the first millennium, due to the proliferation of huge fires lit by humans as they cleared land for settlements and farming.

In today’s world, we’re carrying on with the work of our ancestors, only bigger and better than ever before!

Meteorological Mayhem

Because global warming pollution can stay in the atmosphere for a hundred or more years, temperatures will continue to increase.

‘Hurricane’ is the term used to describe the strongest of the windy, circulating storms that are also called ‘cyclones’ in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans, as well as ‘typhoons’ in the western Pacific. Most Atlantic hurricanes are born in the southern Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Africa, in the months of June through November each year. To form, they require sea surface temperatures (SST) of at least 26C (80F), and the influence of the Earth’s rotation to initiate a spinning circulation known as the Coriolis effect.

Even more simply put: warm water, and the instability in the lower atmosphere that is created by it, is the energy source of hurricanes. This is why they only arise in the tropics and during the season when SSTs are highest.

Burning fossil fuels in cars and power plants releases carbon dioxide which blankets the Earth and traps heat. Oceans cover the majority of the Earth’s surface, and they absorb most of this excess heat. Temperatures have already risen dramatically in recent decades, and because global warming pollution can stay in the atmosphere for a hundred or more years, temperatures will continue to increase.

A Perfect Storm

On Monday 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. Katrina was the most feared of all meteorological events, a major hurricane making landfall in a highly populated low-lying region. Estimates have placed the death toll at more than 1,000 and the costs of damage higher than $200 billion, topping Hurricane Andrew as the most expensive natural disaster in US history. Over a million people were displaced or rendered homeless, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in US history since the Great Depression. Five million people were left without power, and the area of affliction was 90,000 square miles (233,000 square kilometres) or about the size of the UK.

Hurricanes of the intensity of Katrina have become almost twice as common over the past 35 years.

Unfortunately, current research has shown that hurricanes of the intensity of Katrina (category 4 to 5) have become almost twice as common over the past 35 years. Although the overall frequency of tropical storms worldwide has remained broadly static since 1970, the number of extreme category 4 and 5 events has risen sharply, satellite measurements have shown.

Since 1990, an average of 18 category 4 and 5 storms, of similar strength to Hurricane Katrina, have occurred every year, compared with an average of 10 in the 1970s. This appears to correspond with the fact that ocean surface temperatures have increased by an average of 0.5C (0.9F) over the same period.

The Side of Caution?

It may be true that there may not be foolproof, concrete evidence directly linking global warming to any single severe weather event, as the planetary climate is extraordinarily complex, with many contributing variables. Still, fire beneath a pot of water will make it boil, therefore is it not logical to assume that warming up of sea surface temperatures around the world will result in increased water evaporation and thereby storms? From 1995 to 1999, a record 33 hurricanes struck the Atlantic basin, and that doesn’t include 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which blasted its way across south Florida in 1992, causing $27 billion worth of damage. Worse still, a study conducted by a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Kerry Emanuel, found that hurricane wind speeds have increased about 50% in the past 50 years. This would explain the sharp rise in the number of category 4 and 5 tropical hurricane over this time period.

It is true that hurricanes have been around a long time before human beings began chopping down rainforests and polluting the atmosphere, but it is dangerously preposterous to rationalise the notion that doing such things will not have negative consequences.

Consequences for us all and all other living things.

Words: AF Keck, Illustration:

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