But the effects don’t stay in the northernmost latitudes. Melting sea ice and increased warming slow down global air currents called jet streams and cause storms like Hurricane Harvey to “meander” and “stall,” according to Charles H. Greene, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University.
“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “Just like Superstorm Sandy, Arctic warming likely played an important role in making Hurricane Harvey such an extreme killer storm.”
Researchers are still debating the exact role that climate change played in Harvey’s destructiveness. The hurricane, eventually downgraded to a tropical storm, dumped at least 11 trillion gallons of rain over Texas this week, causing devastating flooding that killed as many as 20 people.
Most agree that vicious storms like Harvey are what people can expect as greenhouse gas emissions increase sea levels, causing higher surges. And increased sea surface and air temperatures push more water into the atmosphere, which then comes down as precipitation.
It’s difficult to make a direct connection between a single storm and climate change, and most scientists are quick to hedge public statements. But researchers interviewed by Gizmodo science editor Maddie Stone, who holds a Ph.D. in earth and environmental science, said climate change either did or “probably” made Harvey worse.
Greene took it a step further by identifying how climate change influenced both the formation of the storm and the path it took. He noted that Superstorm Sandy, which wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey in 2012, lingered in a similar way. Instead of veering out over the ocean like “90 percent of most late-season hurricanes,” he said that storm made “a historically unprecedented beeline for New York and New Jersey.”
“This week, we are seeing the effects of another stalled weather system,” he added. “Houston would have suffered much less damage if Category 4 Hurricane Harvey had just crashed through the city and petered out in West Texas. But instead, the storm system is stalled in place and just continues to dump record amounts of rainfall from the Gulf on the city.”