Just a week after Hurricane Harvey caused widespread destruction and loss of precious lives in Houston, Texas, Hurricane Irma is roaring from the Caribbean Islands towards Florida, promising to be even deadlier. These hurricanes have confirmed that climate change is not a faraway threat, it is an immediate danger that is threatening the lives of millions of people and causing massive destruction. Hurricane Harvey unleashed such fury with torrential downpour that National Weather Service had to update the color charts on their graphics to map it effectively.
The sad part is that despite these recent disasters, views on climate change are highly polarized. When the President of the country affected by these deadly hurricanes is not willing to accept the threat posed by climate change, we cannot expect much from others. It should be noted that just days before Harvey wreaked havoc in Houston, President Trump had signed an executive order overturning an Obama-era policy that helped American communities and businesses to become more resilient against the risks of flooding.
What is even more disturbing is that news networks that have the power to reach millions of people are also shying away from linking climate change to the recent hurricanes. A recent analysis found that over the last two weeks, only one of the three major networks discussed climate change.
As Nicholas Kristoff wrote in the New York Times: “Imagine that after the 9/11 attacks, the conversation had been limited to the tragedy in Lower Manhattan, the heroism of rescuers and the high heels of the visiting first lady — without addressing the risks of future terrorism. That’s how we have viewed Hurricane Harvey in Houston, as a gripping human drama but without adequate discussion of how climate change increases risks of such cataclysms.”
Ironically, the head of U.S. Environment Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, actually chided journalists who were sensible enough to note the connection between climate change and Harvey and even called them “opportunistic”.
What causes hurricanes?
Let us first understand what causes a hurricane to get a clearer understanding of the factors that determine its intensity:
It is a known fact that when air becomes hot, it rises up creating an area of low pressure below it. This leads to the formation of hurricanes. A hurricane is basically a giant, rotating collection of thunderstorms that acts as a sort of suction, drawing in warm, surrounding air.
Now the air above oceans already contains a lot of water, so when the hurricane draws in this moisture laden air, it acts as a catalyst, rises up and liquidizes to form clouds and causes heavy rains. The developing weather condition begins to spin because of the earth’s rotation. As long as the hurricane remains over waters of 26 degrees Celsius or warmer, it continues to pull in moisture from the sea surface and grow in size.
Climate change deniers may argue that the occurrence of hurricanes cannot be blamed on climate change alone. While this may be true, there is no denying the fact that rising sea surface temperatures tend to promote stronger storms and hugely affect their intensity. Also, warmer atmosphere is capable of retaining more water vapor, which ultimately leads to much heavier rainfall. The main reason Harvey created such extreme flooding in Houston was that it stalled over the city and dumped trillions of gallons of water over several days without moving on.
Another factor that makes storms worse and is directly linked to climate change is the rising sea levels. With strong winds and unprecedented rains, the hurricanes prove to be much more deadly for low lying coastal areas as they lead to massive flooding.
So the bottom line is that while hurricanes have always been a natural phenomenon, climate change is definitely making them more frequent and more intense. The need of the hour is to make the policymakers understand this fact and persuade them to take immediate steps to rectify the climate crisis.