Hurricanes are the world’s costliest natural disasters, and they’re intensifying because of climate change. Eighty-five percent of all hurricane damage is caused from Category 3, 4 and 5 storms. A hurricane with 150-mph winds has the potential to do 250 times the damage of one with 75-mph winds. As the Earth’s climate warms, there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of Category 4 and 5 storms.
And wind isn’t the only problem. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that the rainfall these storms produce will increase by about 15 percent by the end of the 21st century, leading to more disastrous flooding.
When Hurricane Ian slammed Cuba, it was a Category 3 storm, with top winds of 125 mph. The island’s entire power grid collapsed, leaving people without electricity and trapped in deadly floods. The following day, Ian struck the west coast of Florida with even more destructive force, having picked up strength from warmer ocean water. The Caribbean Sea is now about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in the past. On Sept. 28, Ian was a Category 4 storm, with winds reaching 150 mph, just below Category 5. In the past 30 years, only two Category 5 hurricanes had made landfall in the U.S.
Meteorologists report that before it hit Cuba, Ian became 67 percent stronger in under 22 hours, and it was further turbocharged as it headed from Cuba to Florida. It was one of 30 Atlantic tropical storms since 2017 that gained so much destructive power in less than a day. Climatologists predict that this phenomenon will become more frequent as the oceans and the Earth continue to warm.
According to University of Albany hurricane scientist Kristen Corbosiero, “This season could be a harbinger of sorts of what is to come.” Over the past 10 years, there were about 25 percent more rapidly intensifying storms in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific than were recorded 40 years ago.
Millions of people were forced to flee from Hurricane Ian, well over 100 people died, and according to a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, insurance modelers estimate that the damage it inflicted will total between $20 billion and $40 billion.
Even less intense hurricanes have devastating impact. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy left over $50 billion in damage, making it the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history up to that time. At its peak, Sandy was “only” a Category 3 hurricane, and when it made landfall in New York City, its wind speeds had dropped to tropical storm force. The wind and the rate of rainfall were moderate for a hurricane, but flooding was extensive because a number of factors lined up: the size of the storm, its slow speed, its path from east to west and the fact that it made landfall during a full moon at high tide.
In May 2020, Cyclone Amphan struck India and Bangladesh, forcing the evacuation of over 2 million people. Four months later, the western Ionian Islands of Greece were battered by Cyclone Ianos, which flooded streets, destroyed crops just before harvest, tore down buildings and caused millions of dollars in damage. Before the 1990s, hurricane-like cyclones in the Mediterranean, known as medicanes, happened rarely, because the climate there is generally dry.
In recent decades, the average speed of Atlantic hurricanes has slowed by more than 15 percent, making them more destructive. In September 2020, Hurricane Sally stalled over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, absorbing warm water and gaining strength, and then flooded coastal communities in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a priestess who rejected a liaison with the god Apollo and was condemned by him with the gift of true prophecies that no one would ever believe. Explaining the threat of climate change to Republicans like Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis is like being cursed with the power of Cassandra.
In a press conference last year, DeSantis dismissed scientific recommendations for addressing climate change as “a bunch of left-wing things” and announced that in Florida “we’re not doing any left-wing stuff.” He warned Floridians that if climate mitigation or adaptation policies were put in place, “gas would be six or seven bucks a gallon,” and his job was to make sure “people are able to have affordable energy.”
Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1.