Global Warming’s Devastating Effects

Incredible devastation has been the story of the 2017 hurricane season. With two Category 5 storms making landfall in the Caribbean, the period has been improbable, at least in terms of the historical record. Yet researchers have been saying for some time that years like this were possible, if not likely, as the oceans rapidly warm thanks to climate change.

The world’s oceans have gotten steadily warmer since the Industrial Revolution. And while the difference from one decade to another might not be enough to notice if you dip your toe into the sea, modest shifts over such a vast scale can have profound impacts on weather. The argument is that as seas and atmosphere get warmer, more water vapor is drawn into hurricanes, potentially making them larger, more powerful, and more destructive.

Hurricane Harvey was called a 1-in-1,000-years event, but because it was fueled by a Gulf of Mexico already affected by climate change, the rains that flooded Houston and its surroundings may well have been made worse by global warming.

Looking forward, powerful storms will become more frequent. At the same time, as sea level rises, hurricanes and other extreme coastal weather events will roll in on a much higher plane. One climate scientist we spoke to described it as akin to a slowly rising basketball court, “Given enough time, even guys like me will be able to dunk.”

Despite what has been said about future weather, public policy has been slow to respond. Starting at the top, President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, now leaving the United States and Syria as the only nations not part of that agreement. At the village and town level, local governments are unable to say no to unwise development in vulnerable low-lying areas and are doubling down on infrastructure improvements in places where retreat from the shore is the only sensible path. In the middle, there are the states that can find the money to build bridges but not to aggressively deal with long-term risks on the coasts.

This week, as Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, leaving what is now called a humanitarian crisis, passed off Long Island, another storm, Lee, reformed in the Atlantic. It was only a matter of days after Category-5 Hurricane Irma’s raging path across the Caribbean and South Florida.

Whether or not these storms can be directly tied to climate change, scientists say the trend is clear: More powerful hurricanes will be the inevitable result of a warmer ocean. Appreciation of the danger ahead must guide land-use policy on the East End.