Stronger hurricanes are coming, and climate change is one cause

Inspire Clean Energy

Sep 1, 2023

5 min read

category: Climate Change In The News

Hurricanes are becoming more intense and destructive in part thanks to climate change, scientists have found. Warming oceans, more atmospheric moisture, changes in atmospheric circulation, and rising sea levels all contribute to stronger storms that can even intensify after landfall, leaving damage and destruction in their wake. 

While climate change cannot be identified as the only link to stronger hurricanes, it’s certainly playing a role. Look to the rapid intensification of Hurricane Ian in 2022, Hurricane Ida in 2021 or Hurricane Laura in 2020 for evidence of this pattern.

How climate change has impacted hurricanes 

Hotter temperatures in the ocean and more moisture in the air mean extra bad news when hurricane season arrives. The storms draw their energy from warm ocean waters, so warmer sea surface temperatures give these storms a boost to form and intensify, leading to potentially more destruction. Meanwhile, increased atmospheric humidity can result from warmer air, which holds more moisture. This can lead to heavier rainfall during hurricanes, and potentially more extensive flooding and greater water-related damage. The combination of warm water and moist air is like fertilizer for hurricanes, which guzzle warm water like a “straw sucks up liquid,” according to the NOAA

Climate change can also alter large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns, such as the jet stream and trade winds. These changes can influence the formation, intensity, and path of hurricanes. In some cases, shifts in wind patterns can cause storms to move more slowly or steer them towards populated areas, increasing the risk of prolonged and devastating impacts.

Rising sea levels can also bring more ruin during hurricane season. As seen with Hurricane Ian in 2022, higher sea levels led to worse storm surges—and billions in extra damage. The phenomenon looks like the rise of water at a coast being pushed ashore by hurricanes then pushing further inland, causing more widespread and severe flooding where people are more likely to live.

In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast. Scientists said that the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico played a significant role in intensifying the storm. The warm ocean waters propelled Harvey’s rapid build, with it ultimately reaching Category 4 status and whirring at 130 miles per hour before making landfall. The storm dumped unprecedented amounts of rainfall over Texas, resulting in catastrophic flooding. "Record high ocean heat values not only increased the fuel available to sustain and intensify Harvey," Kevin Trenberth, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told NPR, "but also increased its flooding rains on land."

What stronger hurricanes means for communities and the environment

Intensifying hurricanes pose massive risk to human lives and infrastructure. Faster wind speeds and more aggressive storm surges have displaced communities, leveled homes, and disrupted critical utilities including electric, water, and transportation. In extreme cases, they create climate refugees anywhere from South America to Fort Myers, Florida. These disasters and their aftermath aren’t egalitarian, either, disproportionately hitting communities of color that are less likely to receive aid, ranging from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. There’s tremendous demand for organizations and elected officials to respond or provide aid for people who have been displaced and address hurricane-fueled humanitarian crises. 

There are additional costs to stronger hurricanes as well. The storms harm tourism, fishing, and other coastal industries. The gradual destruction of infrastructure, coastal erosion, and natural resource decline can in the longer term lower employment opportunities and place the onus on impacted communities to chart a path forward. 

As for the natural world, hurricanes hurt coastal and inland ecosystems. Storm surges and intense winds can erode entire coastlines and wipe out habitats. If salt water enters fresh water systems during a storm surge, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are left in crisis. Over time, losing vegetation and habitats to hurricanes can alter biodiversity and weaken ecosystem harmony. Hurricane Katrina in 2006, which left more than 1,300 people dead, had a profound impact on wildlife. The storm severely damaged some 320 million large trees and devastated Gulf Coast forests, decreasing their ability to absorb and retain carbon. The repetition of cases like these could create a scenario where “hurricane-damaged forests release more carbon into Earth’s atmosphere,” according to NASA.

How global efforts are aiming to mitigate climate change 

The intersection of worsening hurricanes and a warming planet can seem bleak. Consensus around how to address a rapidly warming planet is also politically fraught, but pro-climate organizations advocate for reducing harmful emissions, promoting sustainable habits, and transitioning to a low-carbon economy. For its part, the Paris Climate Agreement, adopted in 2015, is an internationally binding agreement designed to limit the acceleration of global warming. On more individual bases, governments and companies are developing carbon neutrality targets, increasingly seen as a corporate social responsibility. Organizations and individuals are also raising awareness of climate change through habit adjustment, whether it be composting or clothing swaps. 

Each new hurricane only underscores the need for activation on mitigating climate change. Hurricane Ian in Florida certainly won’t be the last devastating storm of its kind—but only affirms scientific agreement that a warming planet will give way to stronger, wetter, and higher-surge weather events.

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