Harvey, Irma and Maria–Why Are They So Severe?


Maya Pena-Lobel, Staff Writer

If you’ve turned on the news in recent weeks, you’ve probably heard something about the intense hurricanes that have been ravaging the country.  Front-page articles coming from major news outlets reading: “Hurricane Harvey wreaks historic devastation: By the numbers,” “Hurricane Maria is thrashing the Caribbean,” and “Hurricane Irma Winds Down, Leaving a Trail of Destruction and Broken Records.”  Other articles focused on the economic impact of the hurricanes, making headlines such as “Hurricane Maria could be a $95 billion storm for Puerto Rico.”  Soon, people were talking about President Trump’s visits to the affected areas. One key aspect, however, was overlooked by the public’s eye: climate change.

Before you can understand how global climate change affects hurricanes, you must understand how hurricanes are made in the first place.  Hurricanes, or tropical cyclones as they are officially called, are complex processes, but here’s the rundown on how hurricanes are made.  First, the sun heats the atmosphere and the earth, and much of that heat is absorbed by the ocean.  The surface level of water evaporates, creating warm, moist air.  That warm air then rises which creates a pocket of low pressure that is then filled by surrounding air.  The new air then heats up as well, rises, and the process continues.  As all of this warm rises, it is cooled off higher in the atmosphere, forcing water vapor to condense into clouds.  If these clouds become great enough, and are fueled by enough water vapor and wind, they will start swirling based on the rotation of the earth.  Thus a storm is formed.  As an eye forms, which is a low pressure area of calm at the center of the storm, and wind speeds increase to 74 mph, the storm officially becomes a hurricane.  The hurricane travels through the ocean, increasing in strength and size as it is fed by warm waters and moisture in the atmosphere.

Hurricanes in the Atlantic typically span from June to November, but this summer, eight hurricanes occurred back-to-back, with three abnormally large hurricanes striking the United States in a span of four weeks.  This was no doubt a record breaking hurricane season.  Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc on Texas in late August and made the strongest landfall in that area since 1961.  It was notable for its catastrophic, record-setting flooding and rainfall.  Hurricane Irma, which came in early September, generated the most Accumulated Cyclone Energy (measure of intensity) ever in the Atlantic.  It also was the longest any recorded hurricane around the globe has maintained that intensity.  Later in September, Hurricane Maria crashed through the Caribbean as the worst storm to hit this area in generations.  It was also the third hurricane of category 4 or higher to make US landfall in the same season, with record breaking rainfall and intensity, all of which is unprecedented in the modern era.

These destructive storms were most likely made stronger by us; the answer to why is global climate change!  Although it is true that this hurricane season was worsened somewhat by bad luck (adverse winds which usually slow down hurricanes were weaker than usual), most of what made these storms so strong was extra heat and therefore extra water vapor that resulted from a hotter earth.  More heat and water in the atmosphere and warmer sea surface temperatures could provide more fuel to increase the wind speeds of tropical storms, which is what causes the most damage, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Countless studies show that with increasing surface ocean temperatures and the depth that these significantly higher temperatures reach, hurricanes will become greatly intensified.  These causes can be directly linked to global climate change.  There is also the misconception that climate change makes storms more frequent, but in actuality it has only been proven to make the storms worse.  With more “fuel,” hurricanes build up stronger winds and collect more water which later becomes intense rain with the potential for flooding.  On top of that, higher sea levels because of climate change lead to larger storm surges and definite coastal flooding, which is one of the most damaging aspects of hurricanes.

It is nonetheless important to focus on the people affected by these monstrous storms.  The hurricanes inflicted damage beyond what we have ever seen at once.  There are people in need, and you can help by donating money to organizations such as the American Red Cross.  However, it is still critical to know that global climate change is making these hurricanes so much worse, so we must not pretend that this isn’t happening.  Let us use this destructive hurricane season as motivation to take action and protect the planet that we call home.