Weathering one storm after another grows more difficult in a burning planet

Linda Drounette, 78, drinks a cup of coffee while sitting on the frame of her front door, looking out to the debris left in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Godofredo A. Vāsquez / Houston Chronicle via AP / Keystone)

The storms keep on coming. Within just a week of fighting the megafires in the West Coast of the United States, the country faced another major catastrophe in the form of another storm in the south of the US. Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana last Thursday, bringing with it heavy rainfall and winds of up to 240 kilometres per hour — making it the strongest-ever storm to hit the state.

Though this happened during the area’s hurricane season, what was unusual is that Hurricane Laura arrived just five days after Hurricane Marco arrived in the same state.

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Then Tropical Storm Laura and Hurricane Marco in the Carribean and the Gulf of Mexico on August 23, 2020. Source: NASA

Why we need to talk about it. Having two storms in one basin is not so unusual; this happens all the time in the Atlantic and Pacific basins. What was uncommon this time around is that it happened in the Gulf of Mexico, where temperatures are 3°C hotter than usual making it the perfect breeding ground for hurricanes. As meteorologist and professor, J. Marshall Shepherd, tells Scientific American,

“This sort of generation of earlier and warmer water is very consistent with what we would expect in a climate-changed environment. We’re just in an era of high-octane hurricane fuel… Most of the warming is in the ocean—90 percent or more, [and all of that] is going to find its way back to the atmosphere somehow.”

Such extreme weather events, from fires to storms, have grown more frequent over time — indicating the new state of a rapidly warming world and what it could mean for everybody. The unusual weather patterns observed today may not be so unusual in the coming years.

Storms brewing. What makes this situation alarming is the destruction brought about by such catastrophes. As of Friday, Hurricane Laura alone claimed 14 lives and damaged around 8,000 homes in the US. And these numbers don’t include the destruction in Haiti and the Dominican Republic where the same storm had killed over 20 people. Without immediate climate action, such devastation may also become normal — a situation that leaves little to be desired.

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A girl wades towards her flooded home a day after the passing of Tropical Storm Laura in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

And all this, on top of another global health disaster. Different parts of the world, since the beginning of the Covid lockdowns, had to deal with overlapping catastrophes, posing a double threat to people.

  • In the Bahamas, despite the rising number of cases and a strained healthcare system, the government was forced to relax Covid-19 restrictions, in order for people to buy food and supplies to prepare for the storms.

  • The city of Karachi in Pakistan had also experienced last week its heaviest rainfall and the worst flooding in almost a century. Claiming at least 41 lives as of Friday, the urban flooding and rains on the Himalayas were only aggravated by glacial lake outbursts caused by climate change.

  • Within the span of 15 days from late May to early June, India had to deal with two powerful storms in different parts of the country. Amphan was the most powerful cyclone to hit eastern India and Bangladesh in 20 years, claiming at least 88 lives. Nisarga in western India was a strong rare cyclone that formed in the Arabian Sea and nearly battered Mumbai — a city that has never experienced a storm in 70 years. With unusually warmer surrounding seas, such events may become less and less exceptional in the future.

Reality checks and forecasts. Attributing extreme weather phenomena to climate change is never that simple for climate scientists, but the latest events around the world may create stronger arguments for the links between a warming planet and extreme weather.

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A map of studies attributing extreme weather to climate change. Source: Carbon Brief

A field that began at the turn of the millennium, “extreme-weather attribution studies” have “the power to link the seemingly abstract concept of climate change with personal and tangible experiences of the weather,” according to an article by Carbon Brief. These studies range from formal studies and rapid assessments that can help build knowledge towards possibly forecasting weather events caused by human-induced climate change.

By compiling and mapping the different studies that connect a global phenomenon with lived realities, the result is another illustration of global warming caused by human activities — a reality check for the entire world to act as soon as possible, lest our own slow response take the better of us all.