In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Aoife Hardesty examines the relationship between climate change and natural disasters.
Earth is in trouble, and much like a toddler in pain, Earth is reacting by throwing a tantrum. Except tantrum is too light a word to describe the recent hurricanes, which have battered the Americas, and tantrum, is too light a word to describe how climates all across the globe are changing.
Global climates are changing, this is climate change, it is real, it is happening now, and it is happening fast. In order to understand why worldwide action is necessary to counter climate change, we must first look at just why climate change is resulting in more severe hurricanes.
Hurricanes are not caused by climate change. Hurricanes are a type of tropical cyclone. These are spirally arranged thunderstorms rotating around a centre “eye” of low-pressure. The term hurricane is used to refer to a tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and north-eastern Pacific Ocean.
Tropical cyclones form over large bodies of warm water. As water evaporates from the ocean’s surface it condenses into clouds. The strong, rotating winds are caused by the momentum generated from the Earth’s rotation.
Hurricanes are naturally occurring phenomena, but in recent years (and this year particularly) they are increasing in strength and frequency, and this can be largely attributed to the effects of climate change.
Speaking to CNN recently about Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, Sean Sublette, a meteorologist with Climate Central said: “climate change makes these very bad storms worse. It’s not the approximate cause of the storm but in the case of a really bad storm, climate change can make it totally disastrous or catastrophic.”
As CO2 emissions increase and are trapped in our atmosphere, global temperatures rise, and this includes ocean temperatures. The World Meteorological Organisation’s reports of 2016 temperatures show that 2016 was the warmest year on record with the hottest average global temperature since records began in 1880. The International Panel on Climate Change has estimated that the upper ocean has got 0.4 degrees Celsius warmer since the 1970s, and warmer oceans breed more severe hurricanes.
The warming of the Earth not only directly warms the oceans but is also resulting in the melting of the polar ice caps, melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and melting of glaciers. The water from the melting ice eventually enters the oceans, and is resulting in rising sea levels. Data NASA has taken from satellites show that global sea levels have risen by 86mm since 1993, if that trend continues it will result in a sea levels rising by four foot by the end of the 21st century. Higher sea levels combined with heavy rainfall from larger rainclouds, due to warmer oceans, result in a greater risk of severe flooding during hurricanes, and it is in this way that climate change is exacerbating the severity of hurricanes.
The devastating effects of hurricanes are easily seen by searching on the internet, or turning on the news, and it is inevitably the poorer members of society who are worse affected: those who live in poorer quality houses, and those who cannot afford to leave the affected areas.
Moving stories and images hit us from Florida showing the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, but we see less from Cuba where towns were destroyed, infrastructure swept away, and extensive flooding prevalent. Over one million people were moved out of the path of the hurricane and moved to temporary shelters including caves. The strength of Irma when it hit Cuba was at the most powerful strength of any storm that has hit the island in almost a century.
This is not to say that the people of the USA are any less deserving of our sympathies, but the damage such strong hurricanes can inflict on an entire nation could be catastrophic, and unless we start taking climate change seriously, the next time a hurricane hits, it could wipe a country off the map.
The Paris Agreement has been signed by 195 countries and ratified by 160. The overall aims of the agreement are to slow down the increase in global temperatures, to make it financially viable for countries to have lower greenhouse gas emissions and to improve the ability of the world population to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. Climate change is a real, serious, and immediate threat, both for environmental and humanitarian reasons, and this is why the Paris Agreement must be taken seriously.
With a country now reeling from the devastating effects of climate change, it now seems even more ludicrous that the President of the USA wishes to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement. Officially, the Trump Administration informed the United Nations of the intention to withdraw, but this is a process that will be unable to occur until the agreement has been in force in the USA for three years.
In Ireland, the Paris Agreement entered into force in December 2016. If we all take steps to reducing our carbon footprint we will be able to play our part in helping to save the planet. The whole world needs to act quickly before we end up killing our planet, and all the other life-forms who share the world with us, and before Earth (through no fault of its own) ends up killing us.