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The Connection Between Hurricanes and Climate Change

Scientists say hurricane season is growing in intensity as the climate warms. Learn what you can do to help storm-wrenched communities.

Written by
Esther Abisola Omole

Hurricane season is officially in full force. You've likely seen a lot of new storm names pop up in your feed lately, including Hurricane Elsa in July and Hurricane Henri this past week. Unfortunately, there are more to come.

Hurricane Ida hit Cuba today, and it's expected to approach the U.S. Gulf Coast, potentially as a Category 4 hurricane, this weekend. Right now, the Weather Channel says it will likely make landfall somewhere along the Louisiana or Mississippi coast on Sunday, August 29.

With so many hurricanes making headlines, you might be wondering: What's the connection between climate change and hurricanes? And, what can you do to help when they hit?

The Climate Change and Hurricane Connection

The U.S. is matched only by China and Cuba as one of the top three countries most affected by hurricanes. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey, which was quickly followed by Irma and Maria, caused a catastrophic 103 deaths and cost $125 billion in damages.

Scientists at the World Weather Attribution found Harvey’s rainfall was 15% higher than it would have been without global warming. Unfortunately, the storm is one in a long list of past and impending hurricanes that have been amplified by climate change.

The complex connection between hurricanes and the warming climate can be summed up easily: As the planet gets warmer, we will see stronger hurricanes and a higher frequency of intense storms. In fact, a recent United Nations climate report said tropical cyclones have become more intense over the past 40 years.

This increased intensity can't be explained by natural climate variability—aka the "variation in climate parameters caused by nonhuman forces"—alone. Human-caused global warming is known to increase the chances of these natural disasters.

The Science Behind Hurricanes

The criteria that produces hurricanes is pretty simple. It starts with an atmospheric disturbance located in or near a tropical ocean. Hurricanes spin into being when water temperatures are around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and certain atmospheric conditions are met—namely high moisture and wind. Human impact on the climate has intensified that process by increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

"We conclude that since 1975, there has been a substantial and observable regional and global increase in the proportion of Category 4-5 hurricanes of 25-30% per °C of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming," states a 2013 study.

Hurricanes will only continue to intensify and become more destructive as temperatures rise, because there's more energy available. More energy means higher potential for storms to develop and increased rainfall. In a 2018 paper, Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research explains "the convergence of moisture into a storm not only leads to higher precipitation but also, for certain storms, greater intensity and growth."

These outcomes point to large issues for populations that live along coastal cities. A study from Columbia University states warming caused by human activity can lead to a weakening of disruptive vertical wind shear. This refers to hostile environmental winds that act as barriers, which aid in weakening storms and pushing winds away from the coast. This leaves coastal cities vulnerable to more damage from stronger winds and damaging rainfall.

6 Ways to Help During and After Hurricane Season

Witnessing the increased intensity in hurricane activity and watching them rip through communities year after year isn’t easy. So how can we help?

Understanding our impact on the planet and doing our part to stop climate change is an essential first step. All the small things you do every day to better the planet add up. When hurricanes do strike, there are also some ways you can help those affected.

1. Donate Money to Relief Funds

You can greatly help victims of hurricanes by donating to disaster relief funds, food banks, aid organizations, and communities most heavily impacted by storms. It's important to donate to charities that are reputable and able to help disaster victims directly, like the American Red Cross.

2. Give Blood to Local Blood Banks

If you're eligible, donate blood at your local blood bank. Doing so helps ensure communities in need continue to have a sufficient blood supply. Dangerous weather conditions often make transport difficult and can result in the cancellation of blood drives, which prevents regular donors from being able to give. This is coupled with what's typically an increased demand for blood from hospitals.

3. Donate Goods Requested by Organizations

Check to see if there are any organizations near you that are in need of goods or nonperishable foods to help with hurricane relief. Most will provide a list of items they see a specific need for. Stick to that list, as sending unsolicited donations can actually distract from more pressing efforts.

4. Volunteer Your Time

After a hurricane hits, you can get involved with disaster recovery non-profits that provide opportunities for volunteers to help those impacted by hurricanes and other natural disasters. For example, if you live in an affected community, you can help serve meals and pass out relief packages. Contact a local organization and see where your time is needed.

5. Donate to Animal Rescue Organizations or Foster a Pet

After Hurricane Harvey, animal groups like Austin Pets Alive rescued hundreds of abandoned and shelter pets from areas affected by flooding. Check with local organizations to see how you can help after a hurricane strikes, from making a donation (things like soap, food, and litter) or even providing a cozy home for a new rescue.

6. Stay Informed About Issues Beyond Hurricane Impact

Environmental justice tells us that there are deep racialized and socioeconomic disparities in environmental risk for communities impacted by hurricanes. Hurricane Harvey, for example, exposed a lack of stormwater infrastructure and flood management in a majority of low-income communities of color.

Do your best to educate yourself about these disparities and check in even after media coverage dwindles. Consider extending the short-term relief donations above to help support long-term recovery efforts in these communities.

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