Climate Change

As climate change makes hurricanes more intense, can US live in denial anymore?

Climate scientists agree on the probability that hurricane seasons like 2017 will be repeated more often as average annual temperature rises due to global warming

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 07 September 2017

  • At least four dead in Florida and three million people without power as storm batters the state with wind speed of 130mph

  • Rain and storm surges brought flooding into downtown Miami
  • Hurricanes Irma and Jose have created a record for being the first two storms with speed over 150mph to appear at the same time
  • Death toll due to Hurricane Irma in Caribbean rises to 25

After Hurricane Harvey ripped through Texas on August 25, Irma is now battering Caribbean island nations with wind speed of 185 miles per hour. Even as one of the most powerful hurricanes on record inches closer to Florida, two other tropical storms are brewing in mid-Atlantic and southwestern Gulf of Mexico and have grown to hurricane strength. Four hurricanes in two weeks! While formation of storms and hurricanes in quick succession is not uncommon, especially during late summer and early autumn (August-October), some climate scientists believe that climate change has somehow made this year worse.

Rising ocean temperature decides how many tropical storms and hurricanes will develop each year, according to geography professor Jim Elsner. "We're seeing fewer hurricanes, but the ones we do see are more intense," said Elsner based on the study he and his ex-student Namyoung Kang did.  

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average surface temperature across the contiguous 48 states has risen at an average rate of 0.14°F per decade since 1901. Average temperatures have increased more swiftly since 1979 (0.29 to 0.46°F per decade). In fact, eight of the top 10 warmest years on record were experienced since 1998. Also, 2012 and 2015 were the two warmest years on record.

Claiming that yearly temperatures are a good indicator of how the storm season is going to be, both Elsner and Kang pointed to the trend of stronger but fewer tropical cyclones during warmer year and weaker but more tropical cyclones during a colder year. According to their findings, storm speeds over the past 30 years have increased on average by 1.3 metres per second (3 miles per hour). Moreover, there were 6.1 fewer storms on an average. Hurricane Irma is the latest example. “Irma now had winds of 185 mph for 33 hrs—no other tropical cyclone around the globe has been this strong for so long in satellite era since 1966,” tweeted Philip Klotzbach, meteorologist at Colorado State University.

Location of three Atlantic hurricanes as on 8 PM IST, Sep 8. Credit: Google MapHurricanes source their energy from warming oceans. They are formed when water temperatures are 79 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. As the warm water evaporates, the storm gains the energy to become a hurricane. Higher temperatures mean higher level of energy, and finally, more destructive wind. As the link between burning of fossil fuels and warming of our oceans has already been established, it is safe to assume that climate change exacerbates the impact of hurricanes.

Climate change link can’t be clearer

Climate change deniers try to debunk the claims made by climate scientists by pointing out that Hurricane Harvey was the first ‘major hurricane’ that the US has seen since 2005. NASA had an answer to this idea of "hurricane drought" that climate change sceptics have been propagating. In a 2015 study, two NASA scientists concluded that the fact that the US did not experience major storms between 2005 and 10 was merely "a matter of luck".

The argument that no "major hurricanes" made landfall in the US between 2005 and August 2017 does not hold water as we cannot forget how Category 4 Hurricane Ike affected Texas in September 2008, causing extensive damage. Hurricane Sandy, which happened in 2012, turned out to be the deadliest and the most destructive hurricane of that year.

But 2017 has been different. It is experiencing an “above normal hurricane season". While the 30-year average is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes, the NOAA had predicted 14 to 19 named storms and two to five major hurricanes. While the link between climate change and hurricanes is complex, most experts agree on the probability that hurricane seasons like 2017 will be repeated more often.

The US president Donald Trump seems to be convinced that Hurricane Irma is the largest ever recorded in the Atlantic” and he tweets about the “horrors and devastations” caused by Hurricane Harvey. However, the president continues to refute all claims pertaining to global warming.  This August, he disbanded an important advisory panel aimed at fighting climate change. Few days later, the country’s fourth largest city was seen several feet under water. He has to realise that no country is immune to the effects of extreme climate events.

Impact of Hurricane Irma

Places where Irma made landfall

Damage caused


Almost every building was damaged and about 60 per cent of its 1,400 residents were left homeless.



One death has been reported.

Police stations, hospitals, school facilities, three or four emergency shelters, a home for the infirm and the aged, as well as the fire station have been damaged or destroyed.

St Kitts & Nevis


No significant damage reported. Hurricane warning and flash-flooding watch have been discontinued.

St Martin and St Barts


At least four people were killed in St Martin and 50 were injured across the island. Power was cut across the island and many roads are impassable.

US Virgin Islands

Four people have been confirmed to have died. The only hospital on St Thomas has been damaged.

Puerto Rico

Winds and rains have left more than a million people without power and tens of thousands without water.

Three people have been confirmed dead. Waves of up to 30 feet were reported.

Dominican Republic

Irma flattened buildings, damaged power lines and inundated streets in the beach towns on the north coast.

More than 5,000 people were evacuated across the country.


  Details awaited

Turks and Caicos

Two people were reportedly injured in the northern port town of Cap-Haïtien. Residential roofs were blown away, streets were flooded and utility poles were snapped, causing an island-wide blackout.


 Details awaited

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