Hurricanes, Typhoons, Floods, Drought... Climate's Recent Surge in Extreme Weather, Explained
The post below was written a little over one year ago, in response to the historic floods in Charleston, South Carolina. That week, as I watched my hometown drown, I watched climate change seep into my childhood home, into my living room, my kitchen. It was the first post I ever published to Sustainable Directions.
I am currently on assignment with UNDP's Post-Disaster Recovery and Resiliency Team. This team is within the Climate Change sub-team due to the inextricable link between the increasing severity and frequency of storms, and the pervasive threat of climate change altering weather patterns.
In the wake of Hurricane Matthew the office is in a flurry, and many are frantically packing their suitcases for Haiti. Although I can only support from afar, Sustainable Directions offers its blessings to those affected. Jean Paul Laurent, I give my love to your beautiful country.
The 1,000-year Charleston flood incurred 17 casualties. President Obama declared a State of Emergency, and called in the Coast Guard, FEMA, the National Guard, and hundreds of other volunteers. The deaths were "harrowing," newspapers called.
But what are we to say of Hurricane Matthew's death toll in Haiti this week - nearing 900 and rising? What are we to say of all the developing countries that bear the burdens of climate change, whilst already suffering to meet their basic needs.
We already know that climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution. We also already recognize that if we don't act, we will all share the consequences - albeit some more than others.
Let us remember that this fight isn't hopeless. That the solutions we need are here: renewable energy, carbon offsets, better goods, plant-based foods, and energy efficiency; the list goes on and on. The world just needs your support.
On Monday, October 5th, my mother called and said my sister was out of school again. They hadn’t left the house in three days. There was a sinkhole developing at the neighborhood entrance. The dams were crumbling. People were advised not to leave their homes. South Carolina declared a state of emergency.
In approximately 24 hours, parts of the state received a foot and a half of rain. And according to WeatherBell meteorologist Ryan Maue, the Carolinas were inundated with a collective eleven trillion gallons of water — the exact amount needed to end the drought in California.
The sheer volume and pressure of the rain caused almost complete infrastructural collapse in most areas of South Carolina. Hundreds of roads and bridges were closed and at least nine dams breached or failed completely. Entire cities were left without access to water, communities lost at least three days of school, and the death toll reached 20.
Visually, the rain had reached apocalyptic proportions; its pressure caused flash floods and twenty-foot ocean swells; kayakers paddled along the highways; water seeped into stranded cars like oil. President Obama, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, approved federal disaster relief Saturday for South Carolina after signing an emergency declaration for the state.
“We haven’t seen this level of rain in the low country in a thousand years,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said at a press conference. “That’s how big this is.”
And now, two weeks after the rain has stopped and the news has hushed, South Carolinians are still experiencing unforeseen displacement, damages, and loss, especially in the upstate. The South Carolina Department of Transportation recently estimated that damage to the state’s roads could exceed $1.5 billion. State Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weather said damage to crops could top $300 million. A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency states that 52,000 residents have applied for federal disaster assistance totaling $26.7 million. The sum total of each of the consequences of this catastrophic weather event will leave South Carolinian communities hurting politically, financially, and emotionally for a long time to come.
The question remains: what happened?
Although the storm initially formed off the coast due to a disastrous combination of natural precursors, it is imperative to understand how the affects of climate change aggregated natural systems.
The storm began as part of a deep, slow-moving front tapping into abnormally warmer temperatures and the tremendous moisture caused by Hurricane Joaquin, which was brewing in the Bahamas and Bermuda. The Eastern seaboard was also still experiencing exceptionally high tides due to the September 28th “supermoon.”
But there were larger forces at play. Although climate scientists tend to hesitate before definitively tying specific events to climate change, they are able to explain how it affects general weather trends with absolute certainty. South Carolina’s historic storm was definitely strengthened through the feedback systems caused by global warming. Journalist Chris Mooney outlines the reasons why in simplest form. In his article for The Washington Post, he interviews leading climate scientists on how climate change influenced South Carolina’s record-breaking weather. I have synthesized his findings into three easy-to-understand statements.
1-In general, more extreme rainfall events and climate change are two peas in a pod. Can't have one without the other.
2- An increase in temperature causes an increase in moisture in the atmosphere, and thus an increase in the intensity of precipitation.
According to climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University, “There is an exponential relationship between sea surface temperature and the amount of moisture in the atmosphere above it. So record warm temperatures means record amounts of moisture.”
3- The thermodynamic environment - aka the atmospheric status quo causing temperature fluxes, rain, etc - has changed for all storm events, because there is more available heat and moisture.
Climate researcher Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research stated in a recent paper: “The climate is changing: we have a new normal. The environment in which all weather events occur is not what it used to be. All storms, without exception, are different. Even if most of them look just like the ones we used to have, they are not the same….We argue that under such conditions it is better for event attribution to focus not on the synoptic event, but rather on the influences of the changed large-scale thermodynamic environment on the extremes and temperatures and moisture associated with the event.”
Thus, although South Carolina’s flooding event was not primarily caused by climate change, it was severely worsened by increased temperature and increased moisture in the air due to climate change.
As many of you have probably already experienced yourselves, extreme weather events are on the rise. According to an analysis by the World Energy Council, the number of extreme weather events, such as fiercely hot or cold snaps, hurricanes and flash floods, grew fourfold between 1980 and 2014, from 38 to 174.
Uninsured losses from natural and man-made catastrophes have averaged more than $130 billion annually in recent years, a “significant increase” compared to trends of the last 30 years, the council said.
In my hometown, victims will experience the storm’s consequences for a while to come, whether it is in the form of infrastructure, health, money lost, or more days children are left out of school.
“I am definitely not a scientist,” says Rene Miles, longtime Charleston resident, “but it seems unreasonable to me that we can continue using up all of the earth’s natural resources and not expect it to negatively affect our environment.”