Hurricane Matthew and climate change: What scientists have to say

Credits: NASA Earth Observatory maps by Joshua Stevens, using data from the NASA-NOAA GOES project and Unisys Weather.
Credits: NASA Earth Observatory maps by Joshua Stevens, using data from the NASA-NOAA GOES project and Unisys Weather.

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, the media are fueling the debate on the possible connection between extreme weather-related events and climate change.

Let us first recap what happened in the western Atlantic Ocean between the end of September and first week of October.

It all started as a tropical wave that pushed off the African coast in late September. It took the tropical system a few days to evolve as it moved westward across the Atlantic. On September 28, the system had gained enough energy to be named Tropical Storm Matthew, as it moved towards the Windward Islands.

Once Matthew reached the eastern Caribbean, it became a hurricane and rapidly intensified. Its peak intensity was late September 30 into early October 1, when it reached Category 5 strength with sustained winds as fast as 160 mph.

The Hurricane then made landfall in Haiti and eastern Cuba on October 4 as a Category 4. In Haiti, a country already devastated by the earthquake that hit the capital city in January 2010, Matthew claimed about 1,000 lives.

From there, Matthew struck the Bahamas on October 5-6 as a Category 3 and 4 hurricane.

The southeastern United States was then battered hard by Matthew as it made its way up, near the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. In the U.S., the overall death toll was 33, with most victims in Florida and North Carolina.

The big question, as is always the case when climate-related disasters hit, is whether Hurricane Matthew, along with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Stan in 2005, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, are tell-tale signs that climate change is already having a devastating impact on our Planet.

According to Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s not possible to say for sure that Hurricane Matthew was caused by climate change. Nobody knows that. But everybody should be aware that by burning coal, natural gas and oil we are heating up the atmosphere and oceans, and that is going to make Category 4 and 5 events (around 13% of total hurricanes) more frequent.

Michael Mann is a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, co-author of the book “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy” and author of the 2012 book “The Hokey Stick and the Climate Wars”.

Prof. Mann told Democracy Now!: “…It’s unfortunate that some in the weather community are not providing that critical context for understanding this trend towards increasingly devastating tropical storms and hurricanes. Matthew is a very good example of a storm that was unique, unprecedented, in certain respects. It intensified far more quickly than any other storm that we’ve seen in modern history, basically going from not even a tropical depression to a near-hurricane-strength storm over the course of less than half a day, and then, the next day, strengthening into a Category 5 hurricane.

Hurricanes draw their energy from oceans, which are currently acting like sponges for the extra heat accumulating in the atmosphere due to industrial, greenhouse-gas emitting activity.

What about the impact of hurricanes in the future? Will there be an even more direct link between weather-related disasters and worsening climate change ?

According to Prof. Mann, not only there is an increased possibility of more extreme typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes, a trend that is clearly related to climate change, but it is the combination of intensifying storms with the rising sea level that is going to be the real “killer”.

As a matter of fact, we can expect to see exceptional coastal flooding associated with more intense hurricanes in the future, not just because of the intensity of the storms, but because of the fact that sea level rise has added substantially to the impact of climate-related weather events.

The decisions we make today about our lifestyle and about the kind of energy policies we will be supporting at the political level, will play a paramount role in terms of how deadly and costly future hurricanes like Matthew will be.

Let us never forget that the generations to come will have to live with the consequences of our inability to tackle the biggest threat to the survival of humans on Earth.

Federico Pasquaré Mariotto (Insubria University, Varese, Italy)