Hurricanes and Climate Change 101

Indy Howeth


September 15, 2021


The Science of a Hurricane

Hurricanes need two main ingredients: wind and warm water. They start with thunderstorms in the eastern parts of the Atlantic Ocean and Western Africa. The Earth’s natural wind patterns push the storms west, into the Caribbean and towards the East Coast of the United States. As the thunderstorm moves west, it will collect warm air and moisture, making it grow bigger in size. The storm then rotates counterclockwise due to something called the Coriolis Effect, which is caused by the Earth’s natural rotation. While it spins, there are three essential conditions that will determine whether a storm will grow in intensity or not. The first is that the ocean water temperature must be at 79 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The second is that it must be on open water, undisturbed by land, in order to continue to pick up moisture to continuously circulate and the third is that there must be high air pressure in the wind above a storm. 

For these reasons, hurricanes are found in the southeast of the United States, near the warm-water coast and facing winds from the east. However, some research has indicated that hurricanes may be curving up north more than they have in the past. This may be due to the fact that rising global temperatures are changing usual wind patterns, making weather patterns less predictable. Other research, though, has suggested that the melting ice caps in the Arctic may cool down northern ocean waters enough to prevent hurricanes from affecting the northeast as severely. As the earth experiences anthropogenic climate change, uncharted territory leaves communities uncertain and unprepared in the face of unprecedented extreme weather events.

Why do I keep hearing about hurricanes in the news?

Evidence has yet to clearly indicate whether hurricanes are becoming more frequent on the US East Coast. However, as Jeff Barardelli, Meteorologist and climate specialist for CBS news, explained for Yale’s Climate Connections it would be “reasonable to assume that as humans continue to release planet-warming greenhouse gases, the likelihood of tropical cyclone activity” will increase. That’s because warmer waters and changing wind patterns, the two main ingredients for hurricanes, are caused by anthropogenic climate change. Tripti Bhattacharya, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Syracuse University and researcher whose work has been cited in the U.N.’s recent climate change report, explains it like this: “as the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture – and that means more fuel for rainfall.” 

What is viscerally evident is that hurricanes are becoming more severe and, therefore, much more dangerous to the people and communities they threaten. A recent study – published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – documents this trend. Researchers took data from 1979-2017 of satellite images of hurricanes to determine the strength of hurricanes over the 39 year time period. The evidence they found clearly demonstrated that the likelihood of higher category hurricanes has increased. In fact, the study revealed that “the odds of major hurricanes (100-knot storms)” have increased by “about 15%” and that “most of that increase” has happened “in the last 19 years of the 39-year study period.”

Image of a hurricane victim

In Our Own Communities

Hearing about extreme weather events in the news is one thing — experiencing it first hand is another entirely. Extreme weather events, like hurricanes, can turn people’s lives upside down in the span of a few hours. Imagine losing all your possessions, a loved one, a neighborhood all in one day. It is traumatic in more ways than one.

Mary Kate Johnson, a resident of St. Rose, Louisiana and victim of the recent Hurricane Ida, told “I don’t sleep. I may doze off an hour-and-a-half at the most.” At 57, she and her family lost their dream house of 22 years in the storm and all 7 family members have been forced to take shelter in a rented SUV. FEMA has secured affected residents hotel housing for 30-days, though Johnson has been having trouble contacting them and while there are some shelters open for other victims, she and her family worry about the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a crowded emergency shelter. Many people in her community and so many others in the US have similar personal stories about the days that uprooted their lives in a way nothing else could. 

Stress and other mental health issues are common after experiencing an extreme weather event personally. The National Institute of Health has conducted several studies on the phenomena of communities’ mental strife following an extreme weather event.

…severe stress after the traumatic experience, uncontrollable stress, and feelings of grief and sadness for a prolonged period of time, substance dependency, and adjustment problems which affects the proper functioning of the individual as well as the community resulting in family conflicts…

– National Institute of Health

In addition to the physical damage people and communities face after experiencing a hurricane, it is crucial we remember the intense mental and emotional toll experiencing hurricanes can have on people because our mental and emotional wellbeing is crucial to our overall health and happiness.

Info graphic providing data on economic losses from hurricane winds and storm-related flooding.
SOURCE: The Street

Financial Cost

Climate action costs money, but so does climate inaction. Many officials are hesitant to engage in necessary immediate climate action because of the costliness of many solutions. However, it is important to remember the financial cost of inaction. According to Investopedia, in the last decade there have been 119 extreme weather events that cost $1 billion or more in repair. The average annual cost of repairing communities following extreme weather events from 2010-2019 was $89.2 billion a year. That’s about $37 billion more than the decade before that and about $62 billion more than the average annual cost in the 1990’s. 

Climate inaction is not in the financial interest of the US. The table above, from the Congressional Budget Office, demonstrates two key facts. First, a single hurricane is expected to result in about $55 billion in losses from residential, commercial and public sectors. Second, the sector that is expected to always face the highest amount of losses is the residential sector. That means the majority of financial loss is faced by individual people in their personal lives who must, oftentimes, rebuild their entire life’s possessions. 

Image of President Biden recently spoke in Queens, New York, after surveying the damage left behind by Hurricane Ida to New York and New Jersey.
SOURCE: Forbes

Forecast for the Future

President Biden recently spoke in Queens, New York, after surveying the damage left behind by Hurricane Ida to New York and New Jersey. “These disasters aren’t going to stop,” the President remarked — “They’re only going to come with more frequency and ferocity.”

That is unless we do something about it. The future looks bleak, but it is also not set in stone. We have limited time to make bold changes for the bold problems we are facing.

Learn more about Hurricanes and Climate Change.

Want to read more from ACE? Check out our Blog.

indy Howeth

Indy Howeth

Storytelling Intern

Indy is a Storytelling Intern based in Washington D.C. He produces content and ideation for all social media channels as well as short form videos for campaigns and ads. He is currently in his third year at American University.

More Blog Posts

Climate Emergency Toolkit Images

The Climate Emergency is Here.

Since the summer of 2021, we’ve watched elected leaders at every level grapple with the reality of the climate emergency. Communities, businesses, homes and individuals are suffering at the hand of climate inaction and our elected leaders have the ability to change that. It’s time for our elected officials to meet the urgency of the moment and declare climate emergencies!

Read More

ACE INTERVIEW: Aryaana Khan on COP26

Aryaana Khan (she/they) is a 20-year-old youth climate organizer located in New York City. She has been a part of the Youth Fundraising Advisory Board (YFAB) and a Senior Fellow at ACE, and is currently a Biologist in the making at the City College of New York. As she prepares to attend COP26 with ACE, Aryaana has shared some thoughts around the conference and the outcomes she is hoping for.

Read More
Climate Emergency

Climate Emergency 101

The consequences of climate change are affecting us everyday. We are now experiencing hotter heat waves, deadlier hurricane seasons, rivers drying up, air pollution destroying our health, and so much more. It’s time to sound the alarm and declare a national climate emergency. We need to raise our voices and let our government officials know that its #NowOrNever.

Read More
View More