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.

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