Hurricanes and climate change: What’s the connection?

Year to year, it’s hard to predict how bad a hurricane season will be. But scientists say climate change is making hurricanes worse, specifically when it comes to how destructive they are when hitting land. 

Dr. Kristen Corbosiero is Assistant Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University at Albany. She studies the structure and intensity change of tropical cyclones. 

“We can definitely see changes in hurricane impacts, and we think those will continue to get worse,” said Corbosiero.  

When Corbosiero talks about Impacts, she means the path of destruction a hurricane leaves when it hits a community, like homes, businesses and people. Corbosiero said sea level rise is one of the clearest ways climate change is affecting the destruction hurricanes cause. 

“When hurricanes come ashore, they bring water with them,” said Corbosiero. “Think about the flooding in Katrina, and that was, you know, over 15 years ago now.”  

“More water is going to come ashore,” continued Corbosiero. “And we know that this kind of bringing water ashore is really the number one killer of people in hurricanes.”  

It’s not just sea level rise she’s worried about. A recent study in the journal Science Advances, published in April, shows how climate change may push more hurricanes to make landfall in parts of the United States. 

“I liked this study because they weren’t trying to say there would be more storms or they would be more intense, but the storms that do form have a greater likelihood to make landfall, which impacts people,” said Corbosiero.  

The study specifically said landfalls could happen more in the Southeast U.S., especially Florida, and potentially fewer landfalls in the Northeast.  

“And that was due to storms being moved in the atmosphere in different ways in a warming climate,” said Corbosiero. “That’s what this study projects, in 40-plus years from now, that our change of the climate will impact these storms and whether they hit the U.S. or not.”  

Corbosiero said scientists are less certain about other connections between hurricanes and climate change, like if there will be more in the future.  

“In terms of being able to attribute climate change and hurricane intensity or number increases, it’s difficult to really be able to attribute things to certain causes,” she said.  

Corbosiero said one reason is that they base their predictions for the future by looking at patterns from the past, and they just don’t have enough historical data to do that yet. 

“And I know that’s not a really satisfying answer,” she said. “It’s not a satisfying answer to me as a scientist, but I think we need to be honest about what we know and what we’re most certain about and then what we’re less certain about.”  

There is a broader impact of hurricanes than just to those living along the coast. Hurricanes continue to cause the most destruction out of all recorded weather disasters in U.S. history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

When it comes to the toll of U.S. hurricanes, government estimates say, in the last 40 years, they’ve caused more than $1.1 trillion in damage and are responsible for nearly 6,700 deaths. 

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