The link between Hurricane Harvey and climate change

Floodwaters from the Addicks Reservoir inundate a neighborhood off N. Eldridge Parkway in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Houston. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast this past Friday and the storm, so far, has been catastrophic. Currently, regions of Texas have received more than 30 inches of rain. The National Hurricane Center reports the rain will continue for two or three more days, accumulating an additional 15 to 25 inches. Some areas could see up to 50 inches of rain. This unprecedented amount of rainfall has caused major problems for the citizens in the affected area already. Some have been told not to enter their attics in case they are flooded and others have already fled to their roofs to be rescued by the Coast Guard. The severity of this storm has people wondering: How did Hurricane Harvey become so devastating?

There have been debates among scientists if climate change could be a possible cause for this storm. Some of the well-known effects of climate change are dramatic sea level rises and increased temperatures. Both of these effects could play a role in intensifying the storm. The increase in temperature leads to warmer water, which causes more water to evaporate into the atmosphere. The increased amounts of moisture in the atmosphere would lead to increased rainfall and potentially explain the large amounts of it that result in flooding, as we are seeing in Hurricane Harvey.

Researcher Kenneth Kunkel pointed out that while oceans are typically warmer this time of year, the Gulf of Mexico has been warmer than average lately. This suggests that climate change could be leading to the warmer than average ocean temperatures contributing to the severity of the storm. Man-made sea level rise has also attributed to the increased flooding in the Gulf. The water is already higher and closer to the mainland, making flooding faster and more severe.

This hurricane has been described as a “500-year flood”, meaning that it has a one in 500 chance of occurring every year. Recently, 500-year and 100-year floods have been happening more and more often, with storm Allison in 2001 and flooding in Houston last year. Evidently, there has been increased chances of more severe weather events. The right conditions for these deadly floods and storms have been more frequent due to climate change and its effects.

While the cause of the hurricane itself cannot be directly linked to climate change, it is clear that the effects of climate change have led to the troubling increase of rainfall that we are witnessing in this storm.  It would be ignorant to say climate change has nothing to do with Hurricane Harvey the same way it would be ignorant to think a patch of ice would not make it more probable for you to fall in the winter time. Just as the ice on the sidewalk increases the risk and the severity of your fall, the effects of climate change increase the risk for a 500-year flood and the severity of the storm that is currently raging in the Gulf Coast. People who are denying the link between Hurricane Harvey and climate change are only going to allow the effects to get worse, leading to more frequent and severe storms.

The technicality of causation versus amplification should not be our main concern right now. Our concern should be how these storms are becoming more of a threat to coastal regions and how to better adapt to and prevent another storm like this from happening. Unfortunately for us, the committees and programs put in place to help with the damage these storms cause and creating measures to prevent them are part of the Paris Climate Agreement which our country has recently pulled out of. However, if we, as individuals, begin to accept that these extreme weather events are not random, that there is a reason that they are becoming so much more frequent than we might be able to, as a country, assume the responsibility of trying to stop them.


Samantha Pierce is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at samantha.pierce@uconn.edu.