Hurricane Harvey is Definitely Related to Climate Change
As with most modern weather events, climate change relates to Hurricane Harvey. After reading articles describing the flooding from the catastrophic rainfall as possibly approaching 1 in a million year flooding, I began to notice that none of the articles I read described the ways in which climate change affects hurricane formation, intensity, and the amount of rainfall from these tropical storms. In the interest of maintaining a climate literate populace, it’s important to identify how climate change effects extreme weather events, like Hurricane Harvey.
After reading articles on WashingtonPost, the NewYorkTimes, TheAtlantic, and others, I was disappointed to find that if climate change was mentioned in reference to Harvey, it was often posed as question: ‘what does hurricane harvey say about climate change?’ or, ‘did climate change intensify hurricane harvey?’ or, a more direct title, ‘the relationship between hurricanes and climate change’, that began with the following quote, “How much does Hurricane Harvey, or any particular storm, have to do with climate change?”.
While it is true that the amount of ‘weather’ associated with any particular storm system will have variable amounts rainfall, storm surge, flooding, etc.., that are attributable to anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, the posing of these articles as questions serves to perpetuate the myth that there is a ‘debate’ on climate change, in which both those who assert climate change is happening and human-made, and those who assert it is not happening and/or is not caused by human’s actions could hypothetically be correct.
Additionally, framing the topic as a question misses a scientifically indisputable point, namely, that climate change definitely contributes to Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, and will continue to amplify the mean devastation of other tropical storms. This point is not debatable, so long as climate change continues to result in a mean increase in global temperatures. In particular, none of the articles I had read referenced the obvious scientific fact that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, and most ignored the fact that warmer oceans enable conditions that favor hurricane building, which in the case of Harvey directly influenced its strength upon landfall, as it encountered gulf waters that were much hotter than the mean for that region.
The key here is the temperature increase referenced above. The mean temperature around the world has increased by around 1°C (1.4°F) over the past 100 years or so. Even if one somehow maintains the debunked notion that climate change is not caused by humans (it is), you can’t deny the data on temperature. Also undeniable: a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. More water vapor in the atmosphere means more rainfall. This precipitation amplification has been all too evident this weekend in Texas.
This phenomenon is how Hurricane Harvey definitely relates to climate change. Because climate change has led to higher mean global temperatures, we can expect two things. First, that when hurricanes occur, they will have more rainfall on average than they would have without climate change. Second, because mean surface temperatures are higher, the number of days in which the temperature is significantly above the historical average is also higher. So in addition to producing more rainfall on average, hurricanes are more likely to form in record heat that leads to record amounts of precipitation. With a Hurricane like Harvey, that means we can get >2 feet of rain in an area the size of Massachusetts and potentially a twice-in-a-million-year flood event in Texas.
Overall, I was frustrated by the lack of this dot-connecting by these generally respected news organizations with regards to climate change and Hurricane Harvey. I was even more frustrated when I went to my favorite weather website, weather underground, only to find their typically climate change astute meteorologists had posted numerous pieces, which completely left out any information on how climate change and Hurricane Harvey were connected (despite noting the record rainfall!).
The importance of relaying this information should not be understated. Warmer global surface temperatures directly contributed to the likelihood of catastrophic flooding that Harvey is now devastating Texas. As climate change worsens, these warmer temperature will continue to produce more storms of it’s sort that led to catastrophic flooding that’s only supposed to occur once every 100 years but winds up occurring 4 times in 2 years.
I didn’t think it needed uttering, but it’s imperative that news organizations accurately identify the ways in which our current weather is impacted by climate change, clarify how climate change alters storms relative to the baseline, and indicate what that could mean for our climate future, whether we continue to burn more fossil fuels or transition to renewables. If our news networks and weather stations don’t establish these simple connections between current and historic weather events and anthropogenic climate change, then we as a society will not have a population that has been accurately informed of the grave potential for climate change to unleash storms of similar and even more catastrophic force. It should go without saying, that climate change illiteracy directly contributes to under-informed voters not properly weighing climate change when voting for politicians, many of whom either personally profit from fossil fuels (the drivers of climate change) or whose campaigns are funded by the fossil fuel lobby.
So while it is difficult to say precisely how much climate change has affected the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey’s wind speed, rainfall, storm surge, etc, it is definitely true that climate change increased the likelihood of Hurricane Harvey occurring in the historically devastating way that it has… with epic, catastrophic rainfall and flooding that will likely result in a multi-billion dollar disaster for the state of Texas (Harvey did, in fact, cause ~$125 billion in damages).
For the precocious reader and/or concerned citizen, take a look at Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” to see how politicians and corporations have exploited natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina to ram through disastrous policies that gentrify the poor in the name of profits for the few. This is another phenomenon that will be increasingly common and exploitative as global temperatures continue to increase and storms grow even more deadly.