We Urge You to Explain to Your Audience the Connection Between More Destructive Hurricanes and the Climate Crisis

The 2019 hurricane season began June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that storm frequency this season will be near-normal in the Atlantic and above-normal in the Pacific. These predictions are limited to storm frequency and intensity and do not consider factors associated with increased warming and responsible for the most damaging storm impacts, such as increased rainfall, stalling, rapid spin-up or storm surge

In 2018, the U.S. experienced 14 billion-dollar weather-related disasters, marking the eighth consecutive year with eight or more such billion-dollar disasters. Climate-related disasters cost the nation $91 billion in 2018, the fourth-highest total after 2017, 2005 and 2012. Hurricanes Michael and Florence, along with the western wildfires, accounted for $73 billion of that total. Combined, the two hurricanes resulted in at least 96 deaths, as well as record flooding and widespread devastation.

In 2017, climate-related disasters cost the U.S. more than $300 billion, breaking the previous record of $212.8 billion in 2005. Hurricane Harvey alone is estimated to have total costs of $125 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina, which cost $161 billion. In the same year, Hurricane Maria killed an estimated 4,645 people.

As of April 2019, of the 246 weather disasters since 1980, tropical cyclones have caused the most damage: $927.5 billion total.

More intense and damaging hurricanes are a symptom of global warming, caused by extraordinary greenhouse gas pollution that has altered the composition of the atmosphere far beyond anything in human history. The climate crisis intensifies the harm from hurricanes in at least three ways:

  • Warmer air holds more moisture, ultimately leading to heavier rainfall;
  • Higher sea levels lead to higher – and more disastrous – storm surges; and
  • Warmer water leads to stronger winds, and possibly also causes hurricanes to intensify more rapidly.

Sophisticated attribution studies now allow scientists to identify and quantify the part that human-caused climate change plays in weather disasters, including hurricanes. Attribution studies not only demonstrate the connections between climate disruption and particular weather disasters; when published weeks or months after a given disaster, they give reporters the opportunity to follow up and provide their audiences with more thorough information about what caused the harm.

Warming Increases the Flood Risk from Hurricanes

As the climate crisis persists, flooding is more frequent along the U.S. coastline. Warming has already intensified the severity of hurricanes, and future warming threatens to bolster them even more.

Hurricane Florence was the wettest tropical cyclone ever recorded in both North and South Carolina. Areas in North Carolina saw total rainfall exceeding two feet, with an area near Wilmington receiving over three feet. This level of rainfall typically is not experienced in areas so far north, even exceeding total annual rainfall experienced by some Gulf Coast communities.  Flooding in both states continued for weeks after the storm.

A 2018 study published in Nature found that climate change was responsible for a 4% to 9% increase in rainfall in Hurricanes Katrina, Irma and Maria. Another study estimates that the level of rainfall during Hurricane Harvey was as much as 37.7% higher than it would have been in the absence of climate change. Researchers predict that the rainfall totals of hurricanes could be increased by up to an additional 30% if warming continues.

U.S. Media Fall Short on Connecting Hurricanes to the Climate Crisis

It’s critical that media draw the connection between extreme weather like hurricanes and the climate crisis. Climate disruption already is killing thousands of Americans and causing tens, and sometimes hundreds, of billions of dollars in damage every year. It could pose an existential threat to the U.S. as soon as the second half of this century.

A Public Citizen survey found that of the 24,968 total pieces mentioning Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018, climate change was mentioned in only 10% of online news pieces, 8% of television news transcripts and 5% of print news articles. This is, however, an improvement from 2017, when the rates were 6% for online media and television and 3% for newspapers.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Florence reaching the Atlantic coast, from September 9 to 12, 8% of pieces on the hurricane in the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation* mentioned climate change. On September 12, a day before Florence reached the coast, the Climate Extremes Modeling Group at Stony Brook University released a study to assess the impact of climate change on “the anticipated rainfall, intensity and size of the storm.” The study found that, as a result of human impact on the climate system, rainfall would be increased by over 50% in the heaviest-precipitating parts of the storm, the storm would remain at a higher intensity for longer and the storm would be approximately 80 kilometers larger in diameter at landfall. Despite these findings, following the release of this study, the rate of climate mention dropped to 7.3% for the remainder of the analysis period, through September 16.

This hurricane season, we urge you to do substantially better. Thorough and accurate reporting on tropical storms and hurricanes involves explaining how greenhouse gas pollution is supercharging them. To omit this connection is to leave audiences without information critical to their understanding and responding to the problem of increasing damage from storms.

Notes:

* The newspapers are The Arizona Republic, the Arkansas Democrat‐Gazette, the Atlanta Journal‐Constitution, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The Buffalo News, the Chicago Sun‐Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), The Columbus Dispatch, the Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, the Detroit Free Press, the East Bay Times, the Honolulu Star‐Advertiser, the Houston Chronicle, the Indianapolis Star, the Kansas City Star, the Las Vegas Review‐Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News, the Miami Herald, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Daily News (New York), the New York Post, The New York Times, Newsday, The Oklahoman, the Omaha World‐Herald, The Orange County Register, The Oregonian, the Orlando Sentinel, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post‐Gazette, The Sacramento Bee, The San Diego Union‐Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, the St. Louis Post‐Dispatch, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, The Star‐Ledger, the Sun Sentinel, the Tampa Bay Times, The Times Picayune, USA Today, The Virginian‐Pilot, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.