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What a Difference a Degree Makes

Wed, 08/30/2023 - 18:01


Our hearts go out to the survivors of Hurricane Idalia, which ripped across Florida yesterday. As of this writing, damage reports were not yet available; they were sure to be extreme. Unfortunately, massive, powerful storms like these have become increasingly frequent in the past three decades.

While these kinds of natural disasters once seemed occasional and widespread, now there are so many, especially in the Caribbean and Southeast United States, that they are difficult to keep straight. Do we even remember the names of the two hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico within the span of a month in 2020? (They were Isaias and Laura.) That year, too, a new record for the number of these tropical cyclones was set — 29. Seasoned weather professionals had thought that the previous record of 28 storms, set in 2005, was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. They were wrong.

Hurricane Idalia’s overnight surge to Category 4 has been attributed to record warmth in the oceans. Water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at or above their monthly averages. Hurricane Franklin, far out in the Atlantic at the time of this writing, has also gained strength fast.

Eastern Long Island’s vulnerability to severe weather has been well documented. The most-destructive ever recorded here blasted the Island on Sept. 21, 1938. Few people alive today can remember it firsthand. To give one example, along Dune Road in Westhampton, just 26 out of 179 substantially built houses remained once the waters subsided. Away from the coast, the Blue Hill Observatory near Boston recorded a 186-miles-per-hour gust of wind with a sustained wind of 121 m.p.h. — imagine what would happen in a car crash at that speed. But wind is not what does most of the damage; during hurricanes, water piles up and rushes ashore, leveling almost everything in its wake. Flooding from swollen rivers and streams creates havoc for communities far inland.

Idalia’s sudden intensification followed a trend documented by climate scientists, who have shown that the rate at which these storms intensify has increased significantly over the past 40 years. Forward-looking modeling suggests that conditions will increasingly favor stronger storms near the United States Atlantic Coast as the ocean temperatures continue to rise. It can — and someday soon will — happen here.

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