are hurricanes getting worse?

Let me start by saying I sort of stole the title. But the reality is that it’s a question pondered by many. So let’s examine what we know and admit what we don’t. But first… can I ask a favor?

An odd request for a blogger, I suppose — and only a semi-humble one at that. But here’s the thing. I don’t find a lot of objectivity on this issue. I want to learn. I want to grow. I want to encourage each of us to do the same. But that’s really difficult when we aren’t willing to be objective. As Hurricane Ian ripped through my typically sunshiny state two weeks ago — with the eye coming almost directly over our house — let me be the first to admit my objectivity may be off. Such could also be said of my dear friends in southwest Florida; the devastation there is gut-wrenching! But in order to learn and grow, objectivity is a prerequisite.

Too many push their perspective seemingly inappropriately. For example, a consensus of climate change scientists will tell you that they evaluate trends, not individual incidents. Such didn’t stop CNN’s Don Lemon from asking National Hurricane Center Acting Director Jamie Rohme during Ian’s reign “what effect has climate change had on this phenomenon that is happening now.” Rohme calmly responded, “I don’t think you can link climate change to any one event. On the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse, but to link it to any one event, I would caution against that.” 

No disrespect to Lemon. I’m sure other networks led with their varied bias as well. The point is that bias negates objectivity, and negated objectivity impedes truth. We want the truth: are hurricanes getting worse?

Let us combine the excellent insight and research shared then by The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer and The Dispatch’s Price St. Clair. They concur on the undeniable key point: the link between climate change and hurricanes is nuanced and complicated. It is not the same as other weather events. In fact, as Robinson writes, it is “folly” to suggest otherwise. 

So here’s what scientists agree upon… 

“Hurricanes are getting wetter…  With higher temperatures, ‘you just have more water vapor going up and condensing in the clouds, so you have more rain coming down,’ Kerry Emanuel, a meteorologist at MIT, explained. ‘It’s really that simple.’ Such is significant in that ‘water is by far the biggest killer and source of damage in hurricanes.’”

“Hurricanes are (probably) getting more intense… Hurricanes get their energy from ‘fluxes of heat from the sea surface to the atmosphere’… The warmer the water, the higher the ‘speed limit’ and the faster the winds can get. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ‘more than 90% of the warming that has happened on Earth over the past 50 years has occurred in the ocean’ —which suggests that, in general, the hurricane speed limit has been ticking upward. Research tends to support that projection. A 2021 study led by Tom Knutson of NOAA found that storm intensity has increased over the past four decades and is expected to continue to do so under warming climate conditions. But Knutson and his coauthors noted that ‘it is not clear’ how much of the increase is due to human-caused climate change as opposed to ‘natural variability.’”

“Hurricane data is still spotty… Major storms are increasingly common in the North Atlantic—but there’s still a lot we don’t know. ‘If you look at the overall frequency of storms, it’s going to be completely dominated by weak storms that don’t do a lot of damage,’ Emanuel said. ‘So what you ought to be asking is how does the frequency of category 3, 4, and 5 storms change with climate?’ The number of ‘major’ hurricanes—categories 3, 4, and 5—has increased in the North Atlantic since the 1980s, but not because of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, some of our hurricane woes are a byproduct of having cleaned up the environment.”

That’s what we know. So back to what we don’t… 

“There’s essentially no agreement on what a warming climate will do to smaller hurricanes in the Category 1 or 2 range, Emanuel said. Historically, these less intense storms form far more often than major storms, and they dominate the raw numbers of hurricanes that form each year (although major hurricanes still cause by far the most damage). But ‘we just don’t know if the number of those smaller storms will be more or fewer or stay the same.’

Climatologists also don’t know what will happen to the diameter of hurricanes. The size of hurricanes is an overlooked but important aspect of a storm’s danger, Emanuel said. For instance, Hurricane Ian made landfall in almost the same place that Hurricane Charley did in 2004, but Ian is a much wider—and thus a much more destructive—storm. Charley, in fact, could almost fit entirely within Ian’s eye.” 

So in Ian’s wake, what do we know and what do we not?

Ian was really wet. It was big and intensified rapidly. It dumped a ton of rain on Florida.

And we have a whole lot more to learn.