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Hurricanes Are Getting Worse

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

The frequency of severe hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean has roughly doubled over the last two decades, and climate change appears to be the reason. Yet much of the conversation about Hurricane Dorian — including most media coverage — ignores climate change.

That’s a mistake. It’s akin to talking about lung cancer and being afraid to mention smoking, or talking about traffic deaths and being afraid to talk about drunken driving. Sure, no single road death can be attributed solely to drunken driving — and many people who drive under the influence of alcohol don’t crash — but you can’t talk meaningfully about vehicle crashes without talking about alcohol.

Climate change, likewise, doesn’t cause any one hurricane on its own, but it’s central to the story of the storms that are increasingly battering the Atlantic. Why are we pretending otherwise?

For more: I find the National Climate Assessment reports — cautious documents, written by a federal panel of scientists — to be helpful in understanding the role that climate change does (and doesn’t) play in influencing the weather. Those reports explain that the warming of the planet does not appear to be increasing the total number of hurricanes. But it does seem to be making those storms stronger and causing them to produce much more rain.

Warmer air and seawater cause storms “to rapidly reach and maintain very high intensity,” the scientists have written. Over the last few years, hurricane activity has been “anomalous and, in one case, unprecedented.”

Dorian became a Category 4 hurricane on Friday, before reaching Category 5 — the most severe designation — over the weekend and then falling back to Category 4 on Monday. Both Categories 4 and 5 qualify a hurricane as severe, and Dorian is the first Atlantic storm to reach that status this year. The heart of hurricane season often lasts from August to October.

The Rise of Extreme Hurricanes

From year to year, the number of serious hurricanes fluctuates. But the last few decades show a clear and disturbing trend.

Annual Category 4 and Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes

Number each year

20-year

moving

average

Annual Category 4 and Category 5

Atlantic hurricanes

Number each year

20-year

moving

average

By The New York Times | Source: National Hurricane Center; data on hurricanes is considered most reliable since geostationary satellites began tracking them in the 1970s.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, a typical year had only one severe hurricane. In this century, the average number has roughly doubled, as you can see in the chart above. And because global warming is intensifying, scientists expect the number of extreme storms to continue rising.

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