Is Climate Change Causing Hurricanes To Be More Severe?

Changes in weather patterns associated with warmer temperatures and strong humidity feed into the hurricanes to make them stronger.
09/09/2017 07:55 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2017

Right now, mentioning the very words “climate change” could get you fired in Washington, D.C. EPA Director Scott Pruitt argued, “Now is not the time to talk about climate change,” while liberal comedian Bill Maher noted how many climate change deniers are fleeing the storm.

But are we seeing the impact of what this theory predicted, at least in hurricanes? Climate change supporters, who make up more than 90 percent of the scientific community, admit that such theories do not account for the formation of these storms. But they do note that the changes in weather patterns associated with warmer temperatures and strong humidity feed into the hurricanes to make them stronger.

Analysis from the National Hurricane Center confirms this. Currently, from 2011-2017, we have had 98 hurricanes so far. It’s pretty consistent with other decades, like the 1950s, which average about 13 or so storms a year. There’s not an increase in the number of hurricanes and tropical storms per year.

However, there have been a lot of major hurricanes recently, which are Category 3, 4 and 5. In fact there, have been 15 in just these seven years (2011-2017). Already, five have hit the U.S. (Irene, Sandy, Matthew, Harvey and Irma), with Jose possibly on the way. I’m not counting Category 3 hurricane Joaquin, as it just missed the United States, but it did generate terribly flooding in South Carolina and drowned all 33 sailors (28 Americans) on the S.S. El Faro. In other words, it did not completely spare America, though the eye did not make landfall.

There were seven such major hurricanes alone that hit the United States in 2001-2010 time frame (as well as plenty of hurricanes and tropical storms). Five of these major hurricanes hit America between 1991-2000. From 1971-1980 and 1981-1990, there were only four major hurricanes a decade, with only one Category 4 storm or stronger for those 20 years (Hurricane Hugo, 1989).

But here’s the interesting thing. The terrible destruction of today’s hurricanes does resemble those of much earlier years. There were 10 major storms hitting the USA in 1941-1950, nine in the 1951-1960 time frame, with six in the 1920s, seven between 1911-1910, and four from 1901-1910. There was an average of 6.2 major storms per decade that strike the U.S. from 1851-1900, with an average of one Category 4 storm per decade hitting the U.S. in the same 1851-1900 era.

Over decades, you can see the first world countries like the United States and Europeans make the transition from agriculture to industrialization. The shift to these smog-infested factories and production centers can account for variations in the weather. Efforts by America and Europe to shift to cleaner manufacturing plants and more regulation from the EPA and elections of pro-environment politicians across the Atlanta really paid off, as hurricane severity tapered off from the 1960s through the 1980s, with the occasional outlier like Hurricane Camille.

But the rapid industrialization of third world countries in the late-1980s, led by China and India, as well as rampant burning and deforestation in many Latin American and Southeast Asian nations coupled with the vestiges of remaining old industries in the first world has made these “once a century” hurricanes occur annually or even several times in the same year!

Analysis of the most powerful storms in history, since the mid-1800s, shows us that 10 of the 16 most costly hurricanes in America’s history have occurred in the 2000s (and one of those was Tropical Storm Allison, from 2001). That’s not just because we’re building more on the coast (though that is a problem). It’s also because half of the 10 most powerful storms have occurred since 2000, not counting Mitch (which was in 1998).

We can follow the advice of EPA Director Pruitt and just not talk about it, watching major Southern cities drown while gay people are blamed for weather phenomena. Or we can learn from our past success, when Democrats and Republicans took the necessary steps to reduce the factors which strengthen the storms that devastate our country. It involves a better pact than Paris, including firm commitments and monitoring of the Third World, not just the First World.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2. Russ Ray contributed to this report.

CONVERSATIONS