The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on Saturday and despite warnings of an above-average season and increasingly intense storms driven by climate change, key agencies are facing mandatory cuts that threaten their ability to prepare and protect at-risk communities.
In releasing its annual hurricane season outlook last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted an “active or extremely active” season, with 13 to 20 named storms — 7 to 11 of which could become hurricanes, including 3 to 6 major hurricanes.
These ranges are well above the seasonal average of 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes and 3 major hurricanes.
In addition, climate change is fueling more intense and destructive storms. As Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains, “Climate change is causing a greater number of intense storms. The total number of storms has remained constant, but the proportion of high-intensity events has gone steadily upward in most parts of the world. Scientific models and real-world observations both suggest that the frequency of intense storms is going up.”
As climate change warms the oceans, water evaporates faster — driving stronger winds, more rain, and more powerful hurricanes. And as sea levels rise, the storm surges from hurricanes will be more destructive, posing a serious threat to coastal communities.
These impacts were brought to bear last fall when Superstorm Sandy struck New York and New Jersey. Unusually warm water temperatures fueled the late-season storm and sea-level rise enabled the most devastating aspect of the storm — unprecedented storm surges. Sandy’s tremendous size and catastrophic surges left 147 people dead and caused an estimated $72 billion in damages.
As coastal communities are increasingly vulnerable to more severe storms, across-the-board cuts mandated by the sequester could undermine the ability of federal agencies to keep communities informed and prepared for severe weather.
The National Weather Service, already cash-strapped and under scrutiny for sub-par computer modeling, will be grappling with a hiring freeze and mandatory furloughs as it heads into a potentially daunting hurricane season. The NWS office in Tallahassee, which typically has 18 meteorologists on staff, is down to 14 due to the cuts.
Though officials say they can maintain adequate staffing to provide critical services, such as forecasting at the National Hurricane Center in Miami and sending aircraft known as Hurricane Hunters into storms to measure speed and pressure, the staff and crews will be forced to take turns being furloughed.
In addition, nearly 1,000 Florida national guardsmen and civilian technicians will be furloughed beginning in June and lasting to September, which Governor Rick Scott says will impact their readiness and ability to respond to a major storm.
With resources and personnel already stretched thin, the prospect of multiple major storms becomes even more daunting. “The biggest concern would be if we have a very active hurricane season and we have back-to-back storms or we have multiple storms hitting the state, they would simply not have the manpower necessary to ensure they have the appropriate coverage in all their field offices to provide us with the most accurate and timely forecast,” said Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
As Sandy demonstrated, the ‘new normal’ of climate change-driven storms mandates a new level of preparedness. Instead, agencies responsible for predicting storms and protecting communities in harm’s way are being forced to grapple with significant cuts on the eve of what’s predicted to be a serious hurricane season.
Citing recent severe weather, including more devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma and Missouri, NOAA’s acting administrator, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, announced in an email to staff late last night that the agency, which includes the National Weather Service, was cancelling its intent to furlough all employees.