There will be more storms like Harvey, and there will be more flooded cities.
For several days Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, flooding millions of people out of their homes and causing scores of known deaths. Meteorologists predict that parts of southern Texas might have received north of 50 inches of rain, water which the city's coastal wetlands were ill-equipped to absorb. The storm has evoked similar images from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, a parade of "storms of the century" which all have hit in the last 12 years.
This is the future of our climate.
For years researchers have warned that global warming will redefine our past ideas about extreme weather. As greenhouse gasses have warmed the planet both the temperature and the water level of the ocean have risen in response. This will mean changes from the extinction of coral reefs to agricultural shifts and even wars. It will also drive more storms like Harvey to our shores and neighborhoods.
Now, as the ill-informed like to point out, we can't lay any one specific weather event at the feet of climate change. Hurricanes have always rolled in from the Atlantic and some years are worse than others. But those worse years have gotten more common. Storms of the century now happen every decade, turning disaster relief budgets from a moderate, steady line item to regular big-ticket spending.
So while all weather is a game of probabilities, climate change steadily changes the odds against us. It means facing the same hurricane and blizzard seasons but doing so with loaded dice. Global warming might increase the number of hurricanes per year, although that's unclear, but it will definitely make the ones that do form stronger. That's a particularly big problem since, today, we have a lot more people in their path.
"The climate is changing," said Paul Walsh, director of weather strategy with IBM. "Ocean temperatures are generally rising, so there's more fuel for these storms when they happen."
"And there's more properties and businesses at risk," he said. "Part of the problem is just that there's more people and stuff in the way of these events. There's literally millions of people living in areas, for example, in south Florida that have never experienced a hurricane."
Corelogic, he noted, did a study a year ago that there are 6.8 million homes at risk of hurricane storm surge damage.
Tropical storms, including hurricanes, are an Atlantic phenomenon, and they tend to hit along the Gulf states (although storms can reach as far up as New England). That's a particular problem, because population density has particularly grown in the South. In some cases, it has skyrocketed. Take, for example, Florida, which averaged 51.7 people per square mile in the 1950 census and by 2010 had seven times that number.
A lot more people live in the path of tropical storms than once did and, as discussed, those storms are getting worse.
"The season could be extended for these kind of events," Walsh said, quoting research from the University of Georgia's Marshall Shepherd. "Over the past 50 years the average date the ninth named storm formed is September 30, and we're at nine now. So we're a month ahead of time. This hurricane season is very active and we have a month and a half, probably two months, to go."
Although researchers still believe that aggressive action could curb global warming's worst effects, it's too late to stop completely, because climate change is already here. Aggressive research and preparedness could help cities begin to put adaptability plans in place, but many of the states in the greatest danger are also the ones in which officials (generally Republican) refuse to acknowledge or research the issue. Florida, arguably the state at greatest future risk, has gone so far as to ban even the words from its government offices.
Urban planning, however, will become one of the first fronts in responding to climate change. American cities aren't prepared for flooding. They were never built to channel three feet of water away from houses, and the nature of an urban environment makes any kind of response incredibly difficult. In many cases flood waters make homes so difficult or dangerous to reach that recovery crews can't even act when they first arrive.
"In a situation like this the damage is so severe and keeps getting worse, customers can't even get to their homes to see what the damage is," said Bryan Stone, a member of the Storm Response Team with Servpro. "So it becomes a bit of a waiting game."
"It's a moment by moment assessment," he added.
When storms like Harvey make land response teams get pulled from across the country. Stone gave his interview from an airport while he was waiting to travel down to Texas and join his crew on the ground, because no one city has the capacity to respond to billions of dollars' worth of damage.
Cities are going to have to begin putting these plans in place however.
Hurricanes have traveled as far north as Toronto. They have passed through New England, and have several times flooded New York City. The island of Manhattan is an unusually bad place for a natural disaster, as limited access and high population density make both evacuation and rescue operations incredibly difficult. As a result, the local government has already begun building resilience plans.
However the real danger, according to Walsh, is Florida. Miami hasn't seen a true hurricane in years, and the city is long overdue. Add to that the millions of residents who've never seen a tropical storm and the city's modern, outdoor-focused architecture, and there is very real cause for concern.
As the images coming from Houston show us, a hurricane doesn't leave much behind.
"You don't really have to do a whole lot of training to explain to other human beings that this is a devastating loss," Stone said. "You come up on someone's home as they're holding their child, and they have tears running down their face because everything they've worked for in their life is at risk. It doesn't take a whole of training to explain that."
Unless something changes, that's only going to get worse.
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