Global warming is undeniably happening…or is it? What do we, as a country, truly know and understand about an issue we have all heard so much about? First, let’s discuss some recent events that have been affecting our nation.
Within the course of 1 month, storm trackers and weather satellites have had four major hurricanes in their sights, all maxed out at a Category 3 or higher. These patterns are unlike any that have been seen in historically.
Recapping, on Monday, August 28, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Southern coast of Texas as a category 4 storm. Over a four day period, a max rainfall accumulation of 52 inches (14 trillion gallons) was seen, leaving the impacted areas devastated. This amount of rainfall is unprecedented for the continental US and because of it, nearly 30,000 people were displaced due to flooding. To put those numbers in perspective, rainfall accumulated due to hurricane Katrina was 6.5 trillion gallons.
On Sunday, September 10, the Southern coast was hit yet again when Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a category 4 storm after being downgraded from a category 5. She touched down again as a category 3 around 3:30 pm, leaving nearly 2.1 million homes without power. Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm on Monday afternoon, and continued up the coast into Georgia, causing heavy inland flooding.
A third storm, Jose, began as a Category 4 storm following directly on the heels of Irma, passing just north of the Caribbean islands and Puerto Rico. This storm is currently reduced to a category 1 storm and is slowly travelling up the Eastern coast of the U.S., threatening dangerous riptides and strong currents.
Hurricane Maria, now, is rapidly approaching Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm. Maria is travelling over very warm waters and is expected to make landfall within the next few days before losing any power. There is no telling of the devastating impacts that this storm will have on these already damaged islands but the National Hurricane Center is urging that rush preparations be made for what would be the “most destructive hurricane in Puerto Rican history.”
The patterns we currently see are patterns that we are seeing occurring more often. This is a cause for concern and something that we can no longer afford to overlook or misunderstand. But do these storms relate to one another? Or, can we really hold ourselves responsible for the way these storms are behaving?
The answer is yes and no. Some misconceptions about climate change and its effects on global warming often lead to some confusion. This can cause many people to disregard data presented by reporters and scientists about the effects that we have on the weather that affects us.
In 2016, Yale University did a study on climate change opinions in the United States. The results were…conflicting at best. Of those surveyed (>18,000 people), 70% of adults said they believe global warming is happening and 53% said the warming is influenced mostly due to human activities. However, only 40% said that they believe global warming will affect them personally and 63% said that they believe global warming will affect those in developing countries.
How can we change these misguided beliefs? Much of the problem comes from the terminology. Climate scientists use the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ when describing global weather patterns. This has led many to think that the terms are interchangeable, they are not.
Global warming refers to the long-term, measurable increase of global surface temperature. This trend has been occurring all through history and has been documented since the 1800s. Climate change refers to the change in the global climate due to rising surface temperatures. This causes climate phenomena such as increased precipitation, drought and heat waves, and increased frequencies of tropical storms and other extreme weather.
These “extreme” weather events are what climate scientists work on studying every day to try and predict. According to Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, the storms seen in this past month match the predictions for storms likely influenced by climate change.
In an interview with NPR, Mann confirmed that while storms such as Harvey and Irma had the potential to be powerful storms all on their own, they have been given an opportunity to grow more powerful than similar storms in the past. The Atlantic Ocean has had surface temperatures this summer 0.5-1° C higher than in the past in the off-shore waters where these storms form. Heat acts like fuel for tropical storms so this enabled what were already strong storms, to grow even stronger.
The idea that Earth’s temperatures have been documented to fluctuate also lead to dismissal of human inmpacts. Yes, it is true that water temperatures fluctuate and cycle between periods of highs and lows, but they are happening at a higher average level, and more unpredictably than in the past.
During El Nino and El Nina years, phases of high and cool temperature cycles are seen, which cause an increase in tropical storm frequency. However, hurricane trends over the past few decades have been increasing in frequency and intensity during years not experiencing one of these phases.
In 2017, storm trends have shown similar patterns to those seen in 2005 and 2010. In both years, recorded surface temperatures in the Atlantic were higher than average, and an increase in tropical storm patterns was recorded. Both of those years, like 2017, did not experience an El Nino or El Nina.
Factors independent of global warming, such as current speeds and wind direction, also have an impact on tropical storms and their power, making them unpredictable. However, climate scientists are confident in their predictions that as water temperatures continue to rise, storms will continue to have the ability to build in intensity and power in an unprecedented way.