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Guest Commentary: Bigger, badder and uglier: The ‘new normal’ for hurricane season

By TY CHRISTOFF-TEMPESTA and ADAM ZIMMERMANN - | Nov 11, 2020

With one month remaining, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is three storms away from becoming the most active on record. In many ways, this season has been unique: it’s only the second time we’ve used Greek letters to name storms, having run out of names selected before the season. Several hurricanes have rapidly intensified into destructive forces of nature. Intense hurricanes reliably stalling over land feels like a recent development too, starting with Harvey in 2017 to Florence in 2018 to Dorian in 2019 to Sally this year. Growing up on Captiva and in Texas, this felt drastically unusual from a decade or two ago. Like many others, the whiplash left us wondering: Could we have seen this coming? Should we have seen this coming? Without question, the answer is yes.

The science is unequivocal: Global warming is exacerbating the destructive power of hurricanes. Creating a hurricane requires three ingredients: an atmospheric disturbance in or near an ocean; an atmosphere with moist and uniform winds; and a warm ocean. Oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the excess heat from global warming to date according to the United Nations, providing the fuel for more catastrophic hurricanes. From the end of the 20th century to today, MIT researchers found that the chance of a hurricane with the unprecedented precipitation level of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey increased from a once in a century to a once in 16 years event.

The outlook from here on a business-as-usual path is bleak. Research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has uncovered that hurricanes will have higher wind speeds and precipitation rates, with the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes doubling by the end of the century. At the same time, sea levels have and continue to rise, escalating extreme flooding in coastal areas where population growth is surging. NOAA models place Captiva and Sanibel underwater from sea-level rise between 2060 and 2100 — imagine what the storm surge will be before that.

The damage climate change has done to our environment is, quite literally, coming to our shores. The Earth is rapidly approaching several climatic tipping points, or thresholds past which the damage done by global warming to our environment will be irreversible. It is imperative that we act, and act fast, to mitigate carbon emissions to minimize the destructive potential of future hurricanes and to develop infrastructure to handle its consequences in the short term. But what can you do? Have conversations with friends and family. Reduce your energy use, and your monthly bills. Unplug fully charged devices, reduce food and water waste, use public transportation, and buy carbon offsets if you are able. Urge your elected representatives to take action on climate change and hurricane-resilient infrastructure. Vote. It’s easy to ignore problems that don’t feel tangible in the moment, but flooded houses, ruined schools, and devastated communities are something we can no longer turn away from. Climate change is no longer just knocking on our doors; its waters have been rising for decades, and now they’re bursting through the doorway.

Ty Christoff-Tempesta is a Ph.D. candidate and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a member of the Rapid Response Group of the Environmental Solutions Initiative at MIT.

Adam Zimmermann is an undergraduate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is a member of the Rapid Response Group of the Environmental Solutions Initiative at MIT.