Hurricane Harvey: Did climate change raise its intensity?

A look into how climate change, despite not being able to attribute to weather occurrences, may have played a role into the severity of the devastating hurricane.


Anakin Morales-Jimenez, Reporter

BEFORE READING: Please make a donation to the American Red Cross. It will enable them to aid those who have been impacted by the hurricane not so long ago. Donations can be made online on the American Red Cross website — the minimum amount required to donate is $10. The Save the Children Federation website is also accepting donations, and there is no minimum requirement in case you are not able to donate at least $10. Currently, the damages are estimated to be $190 billion by AccuWeather, $65 billion more than the damages of Hurricane Katrina. Any amount will help families in need of resources!

Recently, a Category 4 hurricane with a wind speed exceeding 130 miles per hour hit and devastated southeast Texas. 31 people, as of now, have been found deceased (and the distressing search for bodies in still in progress), individuals are trapped within buildings due to immense flooding, the costs of supplies and aid are on the rise, and the total amount of damages to structures and roads is currently pending according to Texan authorities. In the coming days, heavy rain is to be expected to further drench the area for at least a week.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami on the 17th of August primarily issued Harvey as a tropical cyclone that was aimed to hit the several small islands of the Caribbean. Two days later, Harvey was then downgraded twice to the point of being recognized as a tropical wave headed towards the larger islands of the Caribbean. In the later days, Harvey gradually increased to the severity and danger of a Category 4 hurricane, hitting the communities near Port O’Connor and Corpus Christi.

Given the patterns of Hurricane Harvey gradually increasing, there are some critical questions: Why did the hurricane become so destructive? What made it worse than originally announced?

Although it is said by scientists that this particular reason does not directly impact a singular weather event, such as a hurricane, climate change can most definitely have a correlation with the rising destructive wrath of the hurricane that shocked the United States.

According to Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist in association with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, “…climate change has [altered] the environment [as well as] everything happening [within]. When you add in the climate’s natural variability, and when the right conditions come along, you can get a storm which is stronger than you might otherwise have expected,” (for National Geographic, August 28th).

The date from the National Hurricane Center states that in Hurricane Harvey’s particular case, wind speeds have increased approximately 45 miles per hour in the span of 24 hours before reaching land — this particular case is not a brand new concept; “…the potential for wind speeds to rise rapidly increases under warmer conditions,” according to atmospheric sciences professor, Kerry Emanuel, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He states that the power of a hurricane roots from the evaporation of the sea water, and when the atmosphere is increasingly warmer, it equals more evaporation and power.

Emanuel has also done approximately 6,000 simulations of storms and hurricanes using the atmosphere and its evolutionary changes with greenhouse gas emissions beginning in the 20th century. After running the simulations and collecting data, the result was quite chilling. A storm that increases in intensity like Hurricane Harvey within the span of 24 hours is more common in the 21st century compared to the 20th century. Such a storm is vulnerable by 10 to 50 times more than before.

To put it in perspective, the short yet powerful storm accumulation would typically occur once a century in the 20th century, but now, they can occur in 5-10 years. The fact that the Gulf of Mexico has reportedly increased by 2° Fahrenheit in the last 30 years does not provide any assistance, according to Andreas Prein at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Senior staff scientist, Michael Wehner, in the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, states that most Category 4 and 5 storms undergo a process of collecting high wind speeds before hitting land, yet climate change is under high suspicion of being a large contributor to Hurricane Harvey.

Over 19 trillion gallons of rain have hit southeast Texas so far, yet the communities there are expected to receive an additional 40+ inches of rain in the coming days, according to AccuWeather. Because of the increasing global temperatures, there has been a significant increase in rainfall within the mid-latitude regions. The warmth caused by toxic carbon dioxide emissions allows storms to accumulate more water vapor, then the moisture of those areas, which include Texas, are at a higher risk of receiving a hefty amount of rainfall. Wehner is also conducting storm simulations, which then revealed that in each storm accumulation simulation, there was more rain that came along with them as well as they progressed — which comes to Trenberth’s observation that climate change increases rainfall by about 5-10%.

“Some experiments suggest that these things can feed back on themselves and increase rainfall even more,” says Trenberth.

Once again, storms typically die out with the dry air on most land. Unfortunately, in the case of the Harvey disaster, the storms pull in moisture from the water they had planted right in the southeast communities of Texas. Hurricane Harvey was powerful enough to essentially create its concentrated water cycle system. It is stationary due to how winds and steering currents have been weakened by climate change, according to Wehner.

The time is now to act to slow the process of climate change and help those suffering under the damages of Harvey.

photo credit: NOAA