Environmental Defense Fund (Blog)

Torrential rains and violent storm surge: Why hurricane impacts are getting worse

As global temperatures rise, storms are becoming more destructive and costly.

As Hurricane Harvey barrels toward the coast of Texas with increasing intensity, forecasters are issuing dire warnings about life-threatening storm surge and torrential rain in addition to the typical wind threats that hurricanes bring.

It’s not a coincidence. As our climate warms, we’re experiencing ever-more devastating storm surges and record rainfalls during hurricane season – which is also why these storms are becoming more destructive and costly.

Evaporation means storms carry more water

Harvey, which formed quickly in an abnormally warm Gulf of Mexico, is expected to dump historic amounts of rain – 15 to 25 inches – with isolated amounts of up to 35 inches along Texas’ middle and upper coasts and as far as 100 miles inland. In some parts of the state, areas could experience an entire year’s worth of rain from this storm alone. 

So why do hurricanes bring more rain in a warmer climate? Evaporation intensifies as temperatures rise, increasing the amount of water vapor that storms pull into their systems. That all makes for higher rainfall.

Unfortunately for Texas, Harvey is expected to stall out as a tropical depression for several days, drenching parts of the state. 

Sea level rise makes storm surges worse

Storm surge occurs when waters rise above their normal levels and are pushed inland by wind.

With Katrina, which hit land as a Category 3 hurricane, it was the storm surge that caused the levees to fail, leading to destruction to the New Orleans area. Storm surge was also responsible for an extra $2 billion in damage to New York City after Sandy hit the area in 2012, according to a Rand report.

This increasing phenomena is due, in large part, to sea level rise, which is triggered by human-caused global warming as warmer ocean water expands and land ice melts. The average global sea level has already increased by over half a foot since the Industrial Revolution. 

Storm-related flooding is on the rise

And this storm isn’t an anomaly when it comes to flooding, either. In fact, intense single-day rain events that cause flooding are on the rise.

Historic weather data measured since 1910 shows that in the contiguous 48 states, nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day rain events have occurred since 1990.

We don’t yet know what kind of damage Harvey or future hurricanes will cause. But they should serve as a reminder that today, more than ever before, we need to be guided by science to help us prepare for, and act, on climate change. 

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