Scenes of leveled houses and flooded streets like those expected this week as Hurricane Ian roared across Florida have become all too familiar. Climate scientists say that catastrophic storms are increasing in intensity as the Earth’s atmosphere becomes warmer.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, there have been 17 above-normal hurricane seasons in the Atlantic since 1995, the longest stretch on record. And, while there may not be more hurricanes in any given year than there would have been decades ago, the ones that do form appear to be getting carrying more punch.
The entire island of Cuba was without power after Ian struck it on Tuesday. Puerto Rico was still reeling with some parts inaccessible days after Hurricane Fiona on Sept. 20 caused flash flooding, triggering mudslides and leaving the entire U.S. territory without power.
After the Hurricane Sandy blasted the New York region in 2012 more than 8 million utility customers were cut off. Fuel was nearly unavailable thanks to damage to petroleum distribution networks and gas stations unable to run their pumps. Sandy was only a Category 1 storm, as was Fiona when it hit Puerto Rico last week.
Meanwhile, sea level changes are intensifying the potential damage from intense coastal weather systems — the effect has been vividly described as if a basketball court floor slowly begins to rise, and soon even people of average height can dunk like N.B.A. professionals. This has massive implications for communities like our own here on eastern Long Island.
Responses to the threat must be both international and local. Unless populations around the world are able to quickly move away from the coasts, inundation is assured. To lessen the threat, global warming needs to be limited to one or two degrees Celsius. Even a small jump in temperature can have an outsize effect. NASA research has shown that for every one degree Celsius, the number of extreme storms worldwide went up by about 21 percent. Based on current climate projections, the researchers said that extreme storms could increase 60 percent by the year 2100. In East Hampton, a new round of shoreline policy that could result in moving structures away from danger is in the process of being implemented.
As of yesterday morning, Hurricane Ian was a Category 4 storm and was expected to strengthen to or near Category 5, the highest classification on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Hurricane Katrina, which is among the worst storms in United States history, was just a Category 3 when it made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi. The 1938 Hurricane, the standard by which Long Island and New England hurricanes are measured, likewise was a Category 3 when it struck on Sept. 21 of that year.
Even without hurricane strikes, East Hampton will become a series of islands by 2070, according to the authors of a new town Coastal Assessment Resilience Plan. Known as CARP, it outlines a range of regulatory changes to help anticipate the inevitable. Among the challenges for officials will be convincing property owners to go along with them. Hurricane Ian — and the storms that will follow — may help convince skeptics that the risk is very, very real. We hope that it is in time.