The greatest threat to Americans is climate silence, not climate scientists. As horrible as Harvey was — and as Irma is shaping up to be — recognizing the role climate change is playing in this year’s superstorms must help guide recovery and resiliency efforts.
That’s why the claims from the Trump EPA and others, that talking about climate science during a super-hurricane is somehow politicizing disasters, is exactly backwards. As climatologist Peter Gleick put it in a tweet on Wednesday, “Asking scientists not to talk about #climate change during disasters is like asking an MD not to talk about smoking when treating cancer.”
If we are going to rebuild Houston in a way that makes future Harveys less devastating, climate scientists must be allowed to do their job of explaining to the public what types of sea level rise, storm surges, stalled weather patterns, and deluges we face. The same is true for whatever rebuilding super-hurricane Irma necessitates.
That’s why now is the best time to hear from climate scientists how global warming makes super hurricanes like Irma and Harvey more dangerous — and increasingly more likely.
“Irma certainly fits the pattern of increasingly strong hurricanes,” climatologist Michael Mann said in an email to ThinkProgress. “Over the past two years, we’ve seen the strongest storm ever (as measured by wind speed) globally (Patricia), and for both Northern (Patricia) and Southern (Winston) hemisphere. And now we’ve seen at least the 2nd strongest Atlantic hurricane and perhaps, by the time Irma’s done, the strongest.”
Mann, coauthor with cartoonist Tom Toles of The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, concludes, “To regard all of this as a mere coincidence when this is precisely what studies have predicted we would see as a result of human-caused warming, is foolhardy at best, and irresponsible at worst.”
Harvey has been labeled a once-in-a-1000 year storm. But if the chances of a Harvey hitting Houston in any given year were truly only 1 in 1000, or 0.1 percent, then maybe we wouldn’t need to spend the money to rebuild Houston to withstand another one.
But the 1-in-1000 calculation comes from statistically analyzing the historical rainfall in an area (there is a great NOAA explainer here). Global warming is juicing storms — a key reason Harvey is the third 1-in-500-year superstorm in three years. As with a baseball player juiced on steroids setting records for the number and length of home runs, it’s the wrong question to ask whether any given home run is “caused” by steroids.
But Irma is a monster, record-smashing storm, with the most sustained high-intensity winds ever seen. As meteorologist Phil Klotbach has explained, Irma has had “185 mph max winds for 37 hours – the longest any cyclone around the globe has maintained that intensity on record” (the previous record was 24 hours).
Hurricanes “extract heat energy from the ocean to convert it to the power of wind, and the warmer the ocean is, the stronger a hurricane can get,” said former hurricane hunter Dr. Jeff Masters.
In the case of Irma, Gleick tweeted on Tuesday, “Some don’t like scientists talking re
#climate change during disasters, so before #Irma strikes: Caribbean water temps are abnormally high.” Here’s a map from NOAA he tweeted out:
Gleick was being facetious, but only slightly.
As we reported last week, after climate scientists spent days explaining how global warming worsened Harvey, the Trump EPA rejected those explanations. “EPA is focused on the safety of those affected by Hurricane Harvey and providing emergency response support — not engaging in attempts to politicize an ongoing tragedy,” a spokesperson said. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh have made equally ridiculous statements.
In reality, now is the time we need to hear from climate scientists the most, since now is the time we are going to have to spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding low-lying areas devastated by superhurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“We have high confidence that hurricane wind speeds will increase because of climate change warming the ocean and boosting fuel for hurricanes,” climatologist James Done said in a message to ThinkProgress. “In recent decades we have seen an increase in the proportion of hurricanes that reach category 4 or 5. It looks like this trend will continue. So, for every hurricane that comes along it will be more likely to be a category 4 or 5 than in past decades.”
Stronger wind speed, higher sea level, and stronger storm surge are coming thanks to human-caused climate changed. We need to start planning and rebuilding for this. That’s especially true if the conservatives who are truly politicizing science keep getting their way, and we don’t take strong action to avoid the future worst-case scenarios.