Are we victims of our own malaise?
A friend of mine recently took a cross country drive along the southern edges of the United States. He ate up the miles, taking crooked roads into patches of vast, remote wilderness simply to ‘have a look.’ But from mid-Texas eastward, he kept to the straight and narrow, blowing down Interstate 10. This path took him through Houston, Beaumont, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile. He summed it up succinctly saying, “The 2020 hurricanes kicked the living shit out of them. They can’t even find a place to run and hide anymore.”
We knew the initial hurricane outlook in 2020 indicated a busy storm season, but we didn’t understand how busy it would be. NOAA’s August 6th update predicted twice the usual number of named storms moving through Hurricane Alley by November 30th (the end of hurricane season). Hurricane Alley is a belt of warm ocean water stretching from North Africa to Central America. An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms in Hurricane Alley, six of which become hurricanes. Typically, half of those hurricanes rise to Category 3 or above. The August prediction was for up to 25 named storms with 11 hurricanes, six becoming Category 3 or above.
Until this year, the most active storm season on record was 2005, when 28 named tropical storms produced 15 hurricanes. August 2005 was when hurricane Katrina charged northward across the Gulf of Mexico, bringing a 25-foot storm surge. At landfall on August 29th, a mountain of water collided with the Louisiana coast, overwhelming New Orleans’ flood defenses and submerging the city. Katrina became the costliest hurricane on record, leaving over 1800 people dead and a final damage bill of $168 billion (inflation-adjusted).
Conditions were ripe for disaster
Hurricanes feed off of heat, so warm ocean water is a critical enabler for hurricane development. As winds sweep across the ocean’s surface, they suck up heat energy and moisture from the warm waters. This hot, water-saturated air ascends due to buoyancy, winds then converge on the low-pressure zone created by the rising air, and a tropical storm is born.
This year, warmer than average seas extended across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean. Ocean waters along the U.S. Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico were also warmer. The entire length of Hurricane Alley radiated more heat than usual, and this heat put the hurricane machine into high gear, raising the risk of increased coastal storm damage in 2020.
But there was a second contributing factor in predicting a doubling of storm activity. West of the Americas and out in the Pacific Ocean’s tropical waters, a La Niña event developed. Cooler-than-average water temperatures associated with this event have the long-reaching effect of weakening wind shear high above Hurricane Alley. High wind shear discourages the development of tropical storms by disaggregating the upper atmosphere conditions needed for the storm to strengthen. However, low wind shear like we experienced in 2020 encourages the development of more tropical storms.
This encouragement was all mother nature needed. NOAA’s August prediction was for 25 named storms. Now, at the end of November, we have beat 2005 with 30 named storms — and counting. This total includes thirteen hurricanes, with six of them being Category-3 or higher. Laura, in late August, left folks with a damage bill of over $14 billion.
How bad can it get?
Believing in climate change is optional, but increasingly, living with the results is not. Lake Charles, Louisiana, understands this proposition — if not intellectually, then emotionally. Laura delivered a direct hit to a city still haunted by the devastation of Rita in 2005. Beaten to the ground and battered by the wind and rain, the city needed help. But the needs of the city were drowned out by ongoing crises elsewhere. California was on fire, again, along with Oregon. Siberia smoldered from a heatwave, causing zombie fires to pop up like weeds, and the American West suffered through year twenty of a megadrought. These events made rapid ice melts in polar regions seem a minor issue. The plethora of disasters overwhelmed the public response, and Lake Charles was lost in the fray.
The Hurricane Laura disaster drew only a fraction of the funds that poured into the city after Rita. Rick Rojas’ New York Times article highlights the pain:
“Our story has just gotten very quickly put aside, and I really think the devastation is so huge we should remain on the front page,” said Denise Durel, the president and chief executive of the United Way of Southwest Louisiana. “The magnitude of our destruction is so huge we cannot come back as a community on our own. We cannot restore our homes on our own. We need the help of the American public, if we can get it.”
Help was not forthcoming. Before Laura’s inundation from rain and storm surge drained away, Hurricane Delta was on top of the city. Again, mother nature unleashed a torrent of water and wind, ripping newly installed blue tarps from the city roofs — the human equivalent of breaking a rib and then getting a bad chest cough.
Of course, the events outlined above are the fundamental nature of climate change. Those people caught in the crossfire don’t have to believe it is real to suffer the consequences. But failure to recognize the threat becomes synonymous with a failure to survive. The challenges are not insurmountable since we possess the scientific knowledge to cope with these changes. The only real threat we face is the inability of society to collectively rise to the challenge. Such a defeat is a failure of reason and planning, not a failure of courage.
After 2 Hurricanes, Lake Charles Fears Its Cries for Help Have Gone Unheard (By Rick Rojas; The New York Times) –
Hurricanes more dangerous than in the past (Source: ArcheanWeb)