Natural Disasters

Reality check: 2017 hurricanes wreaked the most havoc in 48 years

Limiting temperature rise 1.5-2°C may cut down number of tropical cyclones but not their severity

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Wednesday 05 December 2018
Storm Eleanor, Trearddur Bay, Anglesey, Wales, January 2018. Credit: Getty Images Storm Eleanor, Trearddur Bay, Anglesey, Wales, January 2018. Credit: Getty Images

With an estimated damage of around $369.6 billion worldwide, hurricanes have been the costliest in 2017 since 1960, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019 released at the 24th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, underway in Katowice, Poland. The 2017 hurricane season was also marked as the seventh-most active season since the beginning of records (in 1851) and the most active since 2005.

Of the ten most hurricane-affected countries last year, four were hit by tropical cyclones: Puerto Rico, Dominica, Vietnam and Madagascar.

The United States alone suffered damages worth about $200 billion due in 2017, making it the costliest season for ever for the US. The recent National Climate Assessment (NCA) for the US warned of major economic losses due to rising sea levels, frequent heat waves and extreme rains.

The impact has been worse for the poorest countries with the most vulnerable people.

Impact on precipitation, floods and landslides—among major causes of damage

Most countries among the 10 that are most prone to climate risks were hurt by such events. Puerto Rico and Dominica were severely hit by hurricane Maria in September 2017. Sri Lanka suffered the worst rains on the Indian Ocean island since 2003. The May 2017 floods displaced more than 600,000 people. In March 2017, Madagascar too witnessed its biggest storm in a decade.

Peru faced the worst floods there in the last few decades after extreme drought. This has been described as “coastal El Niño”— an infrequent, localised version of the phenomenon, seen last nearly a century ago.

Other countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and India from South Asia too suffered from extreme rains. Floods in these countries affected more than 40 million, with 1,200 people deaths and millions of cases of displacement throughout the region. The floods in August 2017 caused Nepal damages of around $600 million.

Need to be ready for more severe cyclones

If climate change is limited to 1.5°C or even 2°C, the total number of tropical cyclones is actually expected to decrease. But the intensity of the storms is likely to increase and more of the highest category tropical cyclones are likely to occur, projects this index citing IPCC report. Such a rise in global temperature is expected to warm the oceans. Heat generated from the warmer oceans provides more energy to feed the storms, making them potentially more damaging. Besides, the warmer air can absorb more moisture leading to a rise in precipitation coming with the storms.

Slow cyclones, extreme rains

Tropical cyclones are getting slower. As a result, they shower more rain on affected areas, leading to extreme rains. Peak winds and precipitation are likely to increase more significantly if average temperatures rise by 2°C compared with 1.5°C.  Further rises in sea levels will result in more severe storm, warns German Watch.

In fact, India witnessed severe cyclones and floods in 2018.  In August, Kerala was affected by severe floods—the worst for the state a century—due to unusually high rainfall during the monsoon. This was an outcome of a chain of extreme weather events that climate change has triggered in India, according to K J Ramesh, director-general of India Meteorological Department. 

In October 2018, Cyclones Titli and Luban caused immense damage in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. In Odisha, 16 out of 30 districts were affected and more than 5.7 million people across 7,402 villages suffered. In Andhra, almost 1.3 million across 872 villages were affected by cyclone Titli. Tamil Nadu faced the severe cyclonic storm 'Gaja' in November, during which 12 districts of the state were severely affected. The state has seen 30 per cent more cyclones in the past 16 years, found a Down to Earth analysis

The risks of future climate-related losses and damages, thus, are far too severe to simply function as a negotiation chip, says the recent report. It calls upon negotiators at the Poland meet to intensify efforts to properly address “loss and damage” in the interest of the most-affected developing countries. 

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