The winds of climate change

FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2017 file photo, buildings with their roofs damaged by the winds of Hurricane Maria are shown still exposed to weather conditions, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's government said Tuesday, April, 23, 2019, that it plans to demolish 16,000 structures that were heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria nearly two years ago. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2017 file photo, buildings with their roofs damaged by the winds of Hurricane Maria are shown still exposed to weather conditions, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's government said Tuesday, April, 23, 2019, that it plans to demolish 16,000 structures that were heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria nearly two years ago. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

Climate change is a heavily charged topic in science, politics and culture, mixing myths and reality in a confusing conglomeration of opinions fired over the dinner table. While it can be confusing to sift through the vast amount of information on climate change and determine fact from fiction, there is observable, unbiased data that provides a clear picture of the effects of global warming and the risk posed to the Earth’s inhabitants. Data on rainfall and hurricanes from the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans reveals that the intensity of such storms is increasing due to the effects of climate change, causing considerable loss of life and property. 

A paper published last Tuesday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters analyzed the 129 hurricanes that have impacted Puerto Rico since 1956 and the rainfall associated with them. The study found that Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane that killed about 3,000 people in 2017, was the rainiest storm to hit Puerto Rico, partly due to the impacts of climate change. In the mountainous central region of the territory, nearly a quarter of the annual rainfall in that area (more than 150 inches) fell in only a day. The average amount of daily rainfall during Maria (about 15 inches) was 30 percent greater than the past record for a tropical storm, and 66 percent more than the largest storm to have previously hit the island (Hurricane Georges). 

Improvements in climate change modeling technology have been able to link the magnitude of Hurricane Maria’s impact, as well as that of other recent hurricanes, to the effects of climate change. The study in Geophysical Research Letters determined that a storm with similar rainfall levels as Maria is about five times more likely to occur today than it was in the 1950s. This is due to warmer air causing ocean levels to rise and higher wind speeds to occur on land. Warmer sea surface temperatures, according to advanced computer modeling, is anticipated to cause a two to 11 percent increase in average maximum wind speed of tropical storms that hit land. In addition, as the ocean levels rise, there is more water that becomes rainfall, increasing the intensity of hurricanes. Globally, sea level is expected to rise by one to four feet in the next century.  

Hurricanes are immensely destructive for local and larger communities. For example, in addition to the loss of about 3,000 lives, Hurricane Maria caused massive, widespread flooding, destroying dams and ruining drinking water for nearly the entire territory. A different paper noted that the rain caused tens of thousands of landslides that isolated communities for weeks in Puerto Rico’s interior

Hurricane Maria is not the only notable storm to demonstrate the increasing intensity of hurricanes from the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans. For example, scientists have been able to use modeling technology to directly link the record-setting high water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico to Hurricane Harvey’s massive amount of rainfall, which impacted Texas in 2017. Models anticipate a 45-87 percent increase in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes to impact the continental United States in the Atlantic Basin, which will put many lives at risk and create costly property damage

It is important for the average person to understand the link between hurricane intensity and climate change so as to realize the true impact global warming has, and will continue to have, on humans, animals and the world we live in. If citizens do not put pressure on government officials to pass laws directed at combating climate change, hurricanes will continue to intensify, and many will suffer. In addition, while citizens in the U.S. usually have the resources to recover and rebuild communities, populations in island nations and poorer regions do not have this luxury and will be even more affected by violent hurricanes. It is our responsibility to combat this issue, no matter how large it seems, so as to reduce the casualties of decades of excess as much as possible. 


Kate Lee is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at Katherine.h.lee@uconn.edu.