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Hurricanes are getting stronger, and it’s all our fault

Published May 19th, 2020 6:33PM EDT
more powerful hurricanes
Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

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  • A new study reveals that hurricanes are indeed getting more powerful on a decade-by-decade basis.
  • The study also draws strong links between more powerful storms and man-made climate change resulting in warmer ocean waters.
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If it seems to you that the massive storms rolling in from the ocean every year are causing more and more damage than the years before, you’re not alone. Scientists are noticing the trend, too, and a new study published by researchers at the University of Wisconsin Madison and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lays out the evidence in stark detail.

With almost four decades of satellite data to go by, the researchers compared the prevalence of particularly damaging hurricanes from year to year, noting a clear uptick in the frequency of major storms.

The trend toward more powerful storms is quite significant. “The change is about 8% per decade,” Jim Kossin, author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, told CNN. “In other words, during its lifetime, a hurricane is 8% more likely to be a major hurricane in this decade compared to the last decade.”

An 8% increase in the probability of a major, destructive hurricane on a decade-over-decade basis is absolutely huge. If we extend that out to the future it means we’ll eventually be looking at colossal storms yearly, and potentially even multiple high-category hurricanes in a single season. With how long it takes to clean up after such storms (not to mention the lives uproot and lost during the disaster itself), just “dealing with it” will soon be unsustainable.

As scientists have warned for decades, more powerful storms are still thought to be a direct result of rising ocean temperatures due to man-made global warming. A spike in the water temperatures makes it easier for tropical storms to form. As they churn, they are further fueled by the changes in climate and, when they slam into coastal communities at full force, there’s nothing residents can do but run for the hills.

This study, with its decades of data, draws a very clear link between the changes in ocean temperatures and the likelihood of tropical storms turning into devastating cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons. At the same time, it’s also likely that natural cycles are contributing to the more powerful storms in their own way.

“Like all aspects of climate, there is an element of natural variability at play,” Kossin explained. “Our study does not formally disentangle the natural causes from the human-activity causes, and the trends we found are most likely due to a combination of both.”

Whatever the combination of causes, it’s clear that hurricanes are getting more and more powerful as the decades pass, and we’ve done surprisingly little to mitigate the damage they cause.

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