Climate Change and Hurricanes: Science or ‘Fake News’?

Are hurricanes getting worse because of climate change? Well, you wouldn’t know it from the way conservative politicians and reporters are spinning things. So what is science and what is so-called “fake news“?

While several media outlets completely ignored climate change when Hurricane Harvey battered Texas, others posed the question: Is climate change altering our experience of hurricanes?

The Atlantic, for example, wondered “Does Harvey Represent a New Normal for Hurricanes?” Meanwhile, Quartz asked “Did climate change make Hurricane Harvey worse?

The climate science-denialist side of the GOP began their predictable assault on these articles. One of the most face-palm inducing moments, however, may have come from Florida Governor Rick Scott.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, Scott continued his pattern of dodging climate change questions:

Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is. But I can tell you this: We ought to go solve problems. I know we have beach renourishment issues. I know we have flood-mitigation issues.

The main issue here is that beach renourishment won’t stop hurricanes if they are intensifying due to our own actions. Avoiding that question demonstrates terrible leadership and misses the central issue: What are the facts on the hurricane-climate change link?

The science behind hurricanes and climate change

Well, there’s still a lot we don’t know–and scientists would be the first to admit that.

For example, it remains unclear if hurricanes are increasing in frequency thanks to climate change. Datasets on this topic are limited, and the results we do have paint an unclear picture.

For example, some models predict worse but less frequent cyclones, while others point to no decrease in small storms but an increase in more aggressive weather patterns.

This isn’t about a lack of scientific knowledge; researchers simply aim to explore all the different data points, so that a consensus can be reached.

The science is fairly clear on one important fact, though: Hurricanes do appear to be getting stronger as a result of climate change.

Did climate change make the recent hurricanes worse?

The Gulf’s waters have been warmer than average for the past year. Scientific research has shown a link between warming temperatures and an increased likelihood of tropical storm formations. However, as above, pinpointing if that warmer water current is producing more hurricanes is difficult because there other factors to take into account, like air currents.

But scientists agree that the warmer the Gulf, the more moisture is available for storms to grow. And that’s been evident in the numbers, too. A 2012 paper explained here by NASA found that rainfall from tropical storms in the North Atlantic has risen 24 percent per decade since 1988. And that greater likelihood of rainfall can lead to flooding.

In addition, climate change has led to sea level rise. Again, with more water available, the danger from storm surges increases. Some evidence also suggests that altered weather patterns may make storms stay around for longer, but that is still quite speculative.

So while we can’t talk specifics about Irma and Harvey, we can conclude that those warming waters have likely contributed to the power of those recent storms.

Given that we know based on settled science, the danger is clear: Man-made climate change is driving the conditions for stronger hurricanes. In effect, hurricanes will worsen in intensity unless we take serious action to curb global warming.

And that’s not fake news, it’s scientific fact.

Photo credit: Courtney Hedger/Unsplash.

102 comments

Paulo R
Paulo Reeson2 days ago

not fake news but a reality.

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson2 days ago

not fake news but a reality.

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson2 days ago

not fake news but a reality.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld21 days ago

I am still amazed at the number of posters here who resort to insults and name calling when confronted with facts they cannot refute. So sad.

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Mark Donner
Mark Donner21 days ago

Dan Blossfeld is a propagandist for the oil companies. Ignore him, in real life he's a grade school dropout immoral Alzheimer patient like Trump despite his ridiculous avatar with a lab coat and glasses. You global warming deniers and coal pushers have no credibility.

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Mark Donner
Mark Donner21 days ago

Paul B. and Dan Blossfeld have a problem. It's called stupidity. Stupidity plus arrogance leads to the inability to observe reality. A good example of that is Trump and his circle of Republican felons. When you pump 38 billion tons of unabsorbed excess CO2 into the upper atmosphere and oceans, it doesn't have "no effect" no matter how much you wish your warped alternate universe was true, morons. MAN MADE GLOBAL WARMING IS A FACT, JUST LIKE GRAVITY. But these two tweedledum retarded morons don't understand cause and effect, much less physics. The effect of imposing such stupidity leading to planetary destruction is actually a highly criminal act.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld23 days ago

Paul B.,
The currents and winds may be a factor in the increase in Atlantic hurricane activity. It may also be a factor in the decrease in activity in the Pacific. Consequently, even though the global number of hurricanes and major hurricanes is about average, the global tropical activity is running about 3% below average, due to the shorter duration of the most intense storms.

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Paul B
Paul B23 days ago

Warmer waters can intensify hurricanes, but it is still an unproven fact that AGW is the cause for that. So the insinuations as such in this article ARE misleading. From the reports I have read, the number of hurricanes this year was correlated to the currents and wind which are typically stronger and beat the tropical storms down. Lacking those winds, they will grow stronger and more likely to become hurricanes.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld25 days ago

Kathryn I,
If you truly remember that far back, then you should know that this year is not unique, and that other years have witnessed greater hurricane activity. If no more hurricanes form this year (likely), then 2017 will tie for 8th on the all-time list for the number of hurricanes (12th if you include all tropical storms). 2005 is still tops - I am surprised you have forgotten that one, with Katrina and all. 1969 is second, which you claim to remember. The next four are 1887, 1950, 1998, and 1995. Two of those are further back than your memory goes, but the other two are not that. The NOAA (national hurricane center) stated recently, "It is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity." Perhaps you are in a serious state of denial in this regard.

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Kathryn I
Kathryn I27 days ago

Petition signed. I live right on the Gulf of Mexico, and I well remember as far back as Hurricane Camille, which occurred in 1969. Never before have there been as many hurricanes as there have been this hurricane season, which indicates that the recent occurrence all these hurricanes are the result of climate change, without a doubt. Republicans are in a serious state of denial in this regard.

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