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  • Hedda Jarhall

Florida hurricanes to create more damage in future, climate experts say

Photo courtesy of Pedro Portal, Miami Herald for WUSF Public Media

Hurricanes have always been a threat to those living in Florida. Now, with human-caused climate change affecting the environment, climate experts are predicting the impacts of hurricanes in Florida to become increasingly devastating.

Climate Central, a nonprofit organization, researches and educates people on how the climate is changing in local communities.

“Living in Florida carries a particular risk, and part of that risk is that you are in the path of hurricanes and that is going to be true over the long term,” Daniel Gilford, climate scientist at Climate Central, said.

Gilford is based in Florida and works with climate attribution, which tries to put numbers on how much a catastrophic event was influenced by climate change. While Gilford tries to figure out the effect climate change has on hurricanes, he considers the role temperature might play as well.

“This July and this past summer have been the warmest Atlantic sea surface temperatures in modern human history, and we know that is partly because of human-caused climate change,” Gilford said.

He explained that warmer temperatures at the ocean surface give hurricanes more energy to convert into wind which makes them more intense once they are formed. He said that with an increase in temperature, more fuel will be available for hurricanes to intensify.

“That can lead to hurricanes intensifying more rapidly and sometimes in less than 24 hours. This was seen with Hurricane Idalia a couple of weeks ago,” Gilford said.

David Zierden, a climatologist at Florida State University, said the rapid intensification is alarming if it occurs right before landfall because it creates a big forecasting issue.

“Even though the hurricane intensity forecasters are getting better and better each year from the National Hurricane Center, it still presents a big problem in getting that message out and for emergency management to prepare and respond,” he explained.

Zierden said despite the changes in the atmosphere and sea level, climate change is not affecting the number of hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin.

“The number of these tropical cyclones that reach hurricane strength has not seen to change. The studies that look if this might change in the future are today inclusive. However, there are things we can see such as the stronger storms are getting stronger,” Zierden said.

He mentioned that the amount of rain from hurricanes will likely continue to increase with a warmer atmosphere, which is able to hold more moisture.

“Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017, was a prime example of how much rainfall can drop and that rainfall is increasing,” Zierden said.

Gilford added that on average there has been around 10-15% more rainfall from hurricanes in recent years, which is likely due to climate change.

He spoke about a third way in which hurricanes have been affected by climate change. Rising sea levels may create more damage once a hurricane makes landfall.

He explained that when a hurricane makes landfall, it generally drags strong winds along with it, creating a phenomenon known as storm surge, wherein the hurricane pushes the ocean up onto the shore.

“If you start with an ocean that is already a little bit higher, you are driving that storm surge, and the extra water can make a big difference as far as what the impact can be,” he said.

Gilford provided Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York in 2012, as an example of how rising sea levels increase a storm surge. The sea level rose by four or five inches when the hurricane made landfall. Gilford said this led to about $8 billion more damage than what would occur in the absence of sea level rise.

Gilford said the world is stuck with the heat in the atmosphere, but a reduction in carbon pollution would reduce the amount of energy in the atmosphere. This could potentially reduce the impact on hurricanes.

And, Zierden highlighted that upcoming changes in hurricanes do not mean that living in Florida will be dangerous in the future. He advised Floridians to be aware of these factors and make informed decisions when choosing their places of residence.

“Have a plan going into it rather than reacting at the last minute,” he said. By Hedda Jarhall

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