With Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma leaving destruction in their wake and Hurricane Maria looming in the Atlantic Ocean, the frequency and the power of the storms raises the question: How big of a role, if at all, does climate change play on these events?
There are several vital ingredients needed for hurricanes to form. These include an initial disturbance in the atmosphere for the storm to form around, very warm sea surface temperatures to sustain the storm, and a lack of vertical wind shear so the storm is not torn apart during its formation.
In the Atlantic Ocean, hurricanes often form near Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa. They then track westward towards the Caribbean and the US. Lots of factors can affect how strong these storms ultimately become, including how much time they spend gathering strength over the ocean, and the background weather patterns through which they travel.
This storm season we have seen sea temperatures persistently about one to two degrees Celsius above normal over the tropical Atlantic Ocean, which has allowed stronger storms to form and develop. Atlantic sea temperatures have warmed over the past century, thus enhancing one of the key ingredients for hurricane formation.
Hurricanes and Climate Change are they really connected?
According to Ex-NASA Scientist James Hansen, there is a clearly connection between climate change and stronger hurricanes. In a interview for the Program “Democracy Now”, James says that one of the links between climate change and hurricanes is sea level. He said that, sea level was stable for the last several thousand years, but with the beginning of changes in atmospheric composition, caused by burning fossil fuels mainly, the planet is getting warmer, and sea level has begun to go up, because the ocean is getting warmer and because ice is melting.
However, this is not the only connection. Another one is: The Amount of Water Vapor in The Atmosphere. This vapor is increasing because the atmosphere is getting warmer, and therefore the amount of water being dumped during these storms is larger because of the human, human-made global warming, which is now more than 1 degree Celsius. And the simple equations for how much water vapor is in the atmosphere as a function of temperature would be several percent, but, in addition, the distribution of the storms that release the moisture is changing. We’re getting more of the rainfall in extreme large events.
The third link between climate change and hurricanes is: The Strength of Storms. Thunderstorms, tornadoes, tropical storms all get their energy from the latent energy of water vapor. And because the atmosphere now holds more water vapor, the strength of those storms can be greater. And so, there are substantial human-made effects on these storms. It’s not debatable now. These are all well-established facts.
If the Connection exist: Why media do not inform about it?
The watchdog group Public Citizen has the answer to that question in their new report called “A Storm of Silence”. This report, looks at the media’s failure to discuss climate change in its wall-to-wall hurricane coverage. While all the television networks commented on the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey and “extreme weather,” virtually none explained how warmer ocean temperatures lead to heavier winds and many other issues.
David Arkush, the manage director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program, says to “Democracy Now”, about what they found on their report. In that sense, David told that they looked at coverage of Harvey from eight days, starting when it first hit Texas—that was on a Friday—and running through the following Friday.
One of the most interesting thing that they found, was that ABC and NBC News didn’t mention climate change at all with Hurricane Harvey. Also, they looked at 18 media sources —10 newspapers, three newsweeklies, five broadcast networks —. and across all 18 sources, 72% of the mentions of climate change, in the context of Hurricane Harvey, came from just four of the sources. Those were CNN, The New York times, The Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle. So, the vast, vast majority of the coverage was from a very small number of sources. If you live within a certain media bubble and those are the sources that you watch or you read, you might have thought that the climate connection with Harvey was done pretty well in some of the media. It turns out, outside that bubble, it was pretty awful.
According to David, there’s research that suggests that only 43 percent of Americans report hearing about climate change in the media at least once a month. Fifty-seven percent will say that they hear about climate change in the media less than once a month or not at all. Only 19 percent of people report hearing people they know talk about climate change at least once a month. Twenty-eight percent of Americans report never hearing anyone they know talk about climate change.
This is something that it is a terrible threat facing this planet, really an existential threat, that is much nearer and much more urgent than most people think. Most people think it’s an issue that’s going to affect people in faraway places, it’s going to affect people 100 years from now or 200 years from now. That’s all mistaken. It is going to hurt—it is already hurting people in the United States. It is going to hurt worse and worse. And it is going to pose potentially catastrophic, existential threats to the United States as late—as early as the second half of this century. It is very soon. We have very little time left to fight it.
What Have Been The Damages Caused by These Hurricanes?
At least 63 people have died, more than 40,000 homes have been lost, and as many as 1 million cars have been destroyed by the Hurricane Harvey. However, the long-term environmental impact of the storm is feeling too.
Petro Metro in Houston, is the home to a quarter of the petroleum refining capacity in the United States; include the entire Gulf Coast, and the percentage increases to half. Some of the major refineries in the region are run by ExxonMobil, Valero and the Saudi-owned Motiva. The people from “Democracy Now”, took a denominated “Toxic Tour” along the Houston Ship Channel, where plants spewed toxins into the air of nearby neighborhoods, so often poor communities of color.
In the beginning of their tour, the guide Bryan Parras said to the team that a lot of the plants there, had to go into emergency shutdown prior to the storm coming and that’s a precautionary move, but it’s one that they know is going to happen, particularly if a hurricane is coming. Over the years, they’ve done nothing, you know, to prevent the toxic release of the chemicals that are sent out while these shutdowns are happening.
During their tour, they visited several houses and the smell on the air was unbearable. The people who lived there, everyday have to live with the air contamination product of the several plants there.
Maria Nieto, says to Amy Goodman that for her and her family’s, that was very normal, and when the plant shutdown they usually wear mask to protect for the toxic air. Also, maria told that the plant never told them about the shutdown and the possible risk of more contamination on the air.
Another place visited during their tour was Baytown. Baytown is the home of Exxon, you know, a very, very old plant. It’s the second-largest refinery Exxon has and it was flooded with water during the storm. Just 20 feet behind the plant there is someone’s house. So, the contamination is strong and all the family that is there, have risk on their health.
Houston have a very toxic tour, and those companies instead of finding solutions to improve the environment, they are still polluting it. All those factor help to increase climate change and of course the creation of natural disasters like hurricanes.
With all the natural disasters that are happening right now in the world, we must have to ask ourselves a question: what the earth is trying to say to us? We need to stop and start listening to the planet. It’s our duty to do something about it and to change our behaviour for good. It’s our only planet, we need to save it.
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