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What We Know About Climate Change and Hurricanes

What We Know About Climate Change and Hurricanes

Hurricane Ida intensified overnight, becoming a Category 4 storm over the course of just a few hours. The rapid increase in strength raises questions about how much climate change is affecting hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean. While researchers can’t say for sure whether human-caused climate change will mean longer or more active hurricane seasons in the future, there is broad agreement on one thing: Global warming is changing storms.

Scientists say that unusually warm Atlantic surface temperatures have helped to increase storm activity. “It’s very likely that human-caused climate change contributed to that anomalously warm ocean,” said James P. Kossin, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Climate change is making it more likely for hurricanes to behave in certain ways.”

Here are some of those ways.

1. Higher winds

There’s a solid scientific consensus that hurricanes are becoming more powerful.

Hurricanes are complex, but one of the key factors that determines how strong a given storm ultimately becomes is ocean surface temperature, because warmer water provides more of the energy that fuels storms.

“Potential intensity is going up,” said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We predicted it would go up 30 years ago, and the observations show it going up.”

Stronger winds mean downed power lines, damaged roofs and, when paired with rising sea levels, worse coastal flooding.

“Even if storms themselves weren’t changing, the storm surge is riding on an elevated sea level,” Dr. Emanuel said. He used New York City as an example, where sea levels have risen about a foot in the past century. “If Sandy’s storm surge had occurred in 1912 rather than 2012,” he said, “it probably wouldn’t have flooded Lower Manhattan.”
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