Hurricane Irene connected to global warming?
September 8, 2011
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The 2011 hurricane season kicked off with its first major hurricane on Aug. 20, causing widespread damage throughout the Caribbean and the Atlantic Coast, reaching up to eastern Canada.
Hurricane Irene started as a category three hurricane, first hitting the Bahamas on Aug. 24 and moving northward throughout the East Coast and beyond, reaching up to New York and Vermont.
According to The New York Times, 55 million people were affected, and transit systems in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. were shut down. Having left at least 44 people dead in thirteen states, Irene is the most serious hurricane to have occurred so far this year.
“Mother nature takes no prisoners,” Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Robert Duncan said.
The severity of Irene has raised a hotly debated question; was Irene caused by global warming?
“It’s hard to say,” said Associate Professor of Geology David Dobson in an email interview. “In the simplest terms, heat is the fuel that drives hurricanes, so having more heat in the atmosphere and ocean means we’ll likely get either more frequent or more intense storms (or both). Global warming has affected and will continue to affect hurricanes, but it is impossible to assign an individual storm to global warming.”
However, the debate rages on as those who believe that Hurricane Irene had nothing to do with climate change defend their ground.
In an article on POLITICO.com, Eric Blake, a specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said that, “there’s nothing new about a hurricane hitting the Northeast.”
Following up this statement, Thomas R. Knutson, a federal researcher at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, said in a New York Times article that, “the rising trend of recent decades occurred over too short a period to be sure it was not a consequence of natural variability, and statistics from earlier years are not reliable enough to draw firm conclusions about any long-term trend in hurricane intensities.”
Furthermore, Jay Akasie of the International Business Times argues that there is no credible scientific proof that rising ocean temperatures have anything to do with the increasing number of serious tropical storms.
While it is difficult to confirm whether or not global warming did specifically affect Irene, people on both sides of the argument have been forced to acknowledge the wide-reaching impact of the storm. Irene inflicted substantial damage to the East Coast, leaving millions of people without power and forcing many places to shut down.
“The damage caused by natural disasters is generally worse now than it has been in the past, not because they are more intense but because population density, particularly in coastal regions, has grown tremendously in the twentieth century,” said Dobson. “In that regard, future disasters will have a bigger human impact than past ones because more people will die and more property will have been damaged.”
While he noted that some natural disasters, such as volcano eruptions and earthquakes, will not increase in severity, he does suggest that climate change will have a steady impact on others.
“Climate change will probably foster more frequent and stronger natural disasters, and may increase the range and frequency of tropical diseases,” Dobson continued. “Also, the rise in sea level from global warming will have economic impact at the same or greater scale than these short-term disasters, but the changes will be very slow-moving.”
Kyle Dell, associate professor of political science, concurs.
“There is very little evidence of political will in limiting the degree of development of coastal areas in the United States,” Dell said in an email interview. “There are simply too many incentives (economic, political, aesthetic) that push for such development to be extended beyond what would otherwise be reasonable if driven solely by proactive, thoughtful planning that would take into account risk, environmental damage, and resource management.”
As for staying aware as a nation, Dobson believes that it can be done.
“Awareness is easy, and I think we achieved that to a good extent with Irene,” Dobson said. “The relatively small death toll was achieved because of proper evacuations and warning.”
Dobson attributes the low death toll to adequate preparation in the wake of Irene and compares it to the devastating consequences of less proactive measures prior to Katrina.
“We could have had a much smaller loss of human life in Katrina had better evacuation plans been in place and followed, and if our response following the disaster had been better,” he said. “Strong federal support of agencies like FEMA, and staffing them with effective officials trained in the field, will always help reduce the impact of these disasters and help people get back up and running.”
“There’s not much we could do to prevent (natural disasters),” said Duncan. “People have to be prepared, and the government needs to fund research … it’s the government’s job to keep people informed.”