What to Know About Ian and Climate Change
Hurricane Ian moved across the Florida peninsula overnight. The storm dumped a foot of rain on some cities, caused severe flooding and knocked out power for millions of people across the state.
Ian became a tropical storm early this morning, but the downgrade doesn’t mean the danger has passed. The storm is expected to bring strong winds, heavy rains and storm surge in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas over the next few days.
Ian embodies several of the major hurricane trends in recent years, as the world copes with the effects of climate change. It’s a strong storm — and strong storms are becoming more common in the Atlantic Ocean, as its surface water has warmed. Ian also rapidly transformed from a relatively weak storm into a strong one, another phenomenon that has become more common. And Ian is poised to drop large amounts of rain — which, combined with higher sea levels, could cause damaging floods.
This chart, by our colleague Ashley Wu, shows the increasing frequency of severe storms — Category 4 or 5 — since 1980, when satellite imagery began reliably tracking Atlantic hurricanes.
Climate change is part of the reason, many scientists say. “Warmer water fuels storms, and waters have definitively warmed,” our colleague Elena Shao, who covers climate, explained. Daniel Gilford, a meteorologist at Climate Central, a research group, compares hurricanes to engines, like those in a car. Warmer water increases the amount of energy feeding a hurricane, causing it to spin faster.
“As human beings increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the atmosphere and the oceans both warm,” he said. “That leads to more fuel available for hurricanes.”
Gilford, as it happens, became interested in climate science partly because he grew up in Clearwater, Fla., and lived there during the deadly 2004 hurricane season, which included Frances and Ivan. He now lives in the Orlando suburbs and has spent this week tying down objects on his property, stocking up on supplies and preparing to host members of his family. They evacuated from Florida’s western coast, near where Ian made landfall.
Ian has become the 46th Category 4 or 5 hurricane in the Atlantic over the past 20 years — including Frances and Ivan. That’s about as many as occurred during the last 40 years of the 20th century.
Over the past few days, conditions were nearly ideal for Ian to intensify rapidly, Elena said: very warm water, combined with winds that were not quickly changing speed or direction. Now that Ian has hit land, some of the biggest risks involve water (rather than wind), including flooding and storm surges. Climate change appears to have slowed down the speed at which storms travel. It has also led them to produce more rainfall and raised sea levels.
(These maps track Hurricane Ian’s path.)
Climate change is not the only force shaping hurricanes, Elena notes. The weather phenomenon La Niña, which the Northern Hemisphere is currently experiencing, may be playing a role, too. And not every aspect of climate change contributes to more intense storms.
But these caveats do not change the overall picture. Climate change has already contributed to a rise in destructive hurricanes like Ian, and its effects are still growing. Unless the world sharply reduces greenhouse-gas emissions in coming years, deadly storms are likely to become even more common than they are already destined to be.
More on the storm
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