Record-breaking ocean heat and other factors linked to climate change fueled Hurricane Harvey last year, according to a new report. The findings come amid initial forecasts indicating this year’s hurricane season could be far worse, with affected areas like Puerto Rico and Southeast Texas still a long way from recovery.
New analysis led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) indicates that warming waters off the Gulf of Mexico in the weeks before Hurricane Harvey allowed the storm to supercharge in August 2017. Published in Earth’s Future and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, the report confirms what scientists have long speculated: that climate change plays a role in exacerbating hurricanes.
This study comes just a few weeks away from the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season and builds upon prior research tracing the connection between hurricanes and climate change. Harvey developed in relative isolation with regards to its location and timing, providing scientists with a unique opportunity to study the hurricane. Previous studies have found climate change fueled Harvey’s historic rainfall, but the new analysis directly links record heat in the ocean to the storm.
The Gulf of Mexico itself is hurricane-prone, but in the time leading up to Harvey, the area experienced its warmest temperatures ever recorded. That allowed for increased moisture, sparking a much larger-than-average storm and allowing for a torrential downpour of rain after it stalled over the sprawling city of Houston. More than 60 inches of rain were recorded in the region, the most ever documented in U.S. history.
“While hurricanes occur naturally, human‐caused climate change is supercharging them and exacerbating the risk of major damage,” the study explains.
“Harvey could not have produced so much rain without human‐induced climate change. [These results] have implications for the role of hurricanes in climate,” the analysis continues. “Proactive planning for the consequences of human‐caused climate change is not happening in many vulnerable areas, making the disasters much worse.”
Another study published in Geophysical Research Letters last Thursday found that Atlantic hurricanes are intensifying at a far greater speed than they did three decades ago. The study, conducted by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, analyzed how quickly wind speed accelerated in various storms. Modern hurricanes, the researchers concluded, are accelerating 13 miles per hour faster per day than they did 30 years ago.
That’s ominous news for a number of hurricane-prone communities. Florida is still rebuilding following Hurricane Irma, which hit the state last September. Much of Southeast Texas has not fully recovered from Harvey, which is tied with Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical storm on record. NOAA estimates that the storm cost upwards of $125 billion in addition to destroying at least 300,000 structures. More than 100 deaths have been connected to the hurricane.
Worst off is Puerto Rico, which has spent eight months attempting to recover from Hurricane Maria, as well as Irma. Maria struck the island in September as a Category 4 storm, destroying Puerto Rico’s precarious electrical grid and leaving the overwhelming majority of the island without steady access to power, water, or other basic necessities. A slow, stalled recovery effort on the island led to the longest blackout in U.S. history.
Between 20,000 and 50,000 Puerto Ricans are still without power and many lack consistent access to potable water. At least 283 schools on the island are slated to close following an exodus to the mainland and dwindling resources. With hurricane season rapidly approaching, Puerto Rican officials have begun stockpiling water and radios, in addition to purchasing back-up generators.
Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1 and marks the period during which hurricanes are most likely to form in that ocean. During a press conference Thursday, officials insisted the island is prepared to handle the upcoming storm season and that systems are in place to inform and protect islanders. But reporters in the audience expressed skepticism.
“We’re hearing practically the same thing we heard before Irma and Maria — ‘We’re prepared. We have a plan,’” noted one, according to Buzzfeed. “But we didn’t really have a plan, not to confront a Category 5 hurricane or a hurricane of any kind.”
With hurricane season less than three weeks away, time to prepare for any upcoming major storms is dwindling. And while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has yet to provide its own predictions for the upcoming season, researchers from both North Carolina State University and Colorado State University have separately speculated that this year will see above-average activity. Up to 18 named storms could form in 2018 they predict and, of those, up to five could potentially become major hurricanes, the Guardian reported Friday.