‘We’ve run out of superlatives’: WMO warns on unprecedented hurricane season

eople are seen in streets flooded due to the passage of Hurricane Iota, in Managua, Nicaragua, 17 November 2020. (EPA/Jorge Torres)

Fifty years ago, cyclone Bhola made landfall in present-day Bangladesh in what remains the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and one of the world's deadliest natural disasters, claiming 500,000 lives.

Today, the devastation caused by hurricanes is growing ever more urgent, climate experts have warned, as Iota tore into Central America in almost exactly the same region hit less than two weeks ago by hurricane Eta.

For the first time on record, the Atlantic has experienced two major hurricanes in November at a time when the season is usually winding down, Clare Nullis, a spokesperson for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

With winds reaching up to 260km per hour, Iota is the strongest hurricane storm in the season so far to make landfall. It is also the 30th tropical storm of the hurricane season - the highest number on record.

“We have run out of superlatives for this Atlantic hurricane season,” she said. “It’s record-breaking in every sense of the word.”

Iota hit Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast on Monday as a Category 4 major hurricane, battering areas still reeling from the devastation caused this month by Eta.

Although expected to weaken into a tropical depression, strong winds and heavy rainfall “could cause life-threatening flash floods, river flooding, and landslides,”  Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said.

As part of the response to Eta, a seven-member United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team had deployed over the weekend to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Both the governments of Honduras and Guatemala had called for assistance from international organisations and bilateral support following Eta.

Matthew Cochrane, a spokesperson for the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), said the organisation had activated three water and sanitation Emergency Response Units and one emergency health clinic over the past week. However storm conditions have made it difficult for aid workers to reach communities, he said. More than 100 tons of relief items have been sent to Nicaragua and Honduras from its regional logistics unit in Panama.

What’s causing this record number of hurricanes? In May the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast an above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season ahead, with a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms. However, with Iota marking the 30th storm, the season has surpassed predictions.

There are number of factors behind the extraordinary season, one being the absence of El Niño, the warm phase of a recurring climate pattern that tends to suppress hurricane activity. Warmer sea surface temperatures and higher sea levels, leading to bigger storm surges, can also explain 2020’s record-setting season. Ultimately, “all of this is taking place in an era of climate change,” Nullis said.

The latest World Disasters Report 2020 published this week by the IFRC showed that in the past decade, 83 per cent of all disasters triggered by natural hazards were caused by extreme weather and climate-related events such as storms, floods and heatwaves.

The report also found that countries most vulnerable to climate-related disasters receive a fraction of the funding available for adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Cochrane noted that Honduras, for example, was considered one of the countries in the region most vulnerable to climate-related disasters.

However, despite this, Honduras received only $ 1.22 per person in climate change adaptation (CCA) funding in 2018 and ranked 54th in the world for per capita CCA funding. He urged donors to come forward and support its emergency fund for Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.