Devastating Hurricanes Will Become Much More Likely If We Miss Tougher Climate Change Goals

Astronaut Ricky Arnold took this image of Hurricane Maria from aboard the International Space Station in September 2018. NASA

Hurricane Laura is currently wreaking destruction in the mainland US and the northern Caribbean. The strength of the storm is partially unprecedented and has already become one of the most powerful storms to ever strike this part of the world. However, as shown by a new study, it looks like this kind of devastating hurricane activity is only going to become more likely if the planet fails to address the mounting climate crisis.

"Hurricane Laura has caused widespread devastation and flash flooding to Louisiana with Hurricane Marco following close behind. Both hurricanes passed over the Caribbean earlier this week, they caused landslides in Jamaica and badly hit Haiti and the Dominican Republic," Emily Vosper, lead study author and research student at the School of Computer Science at the University of Bristol, told IFLScience.

"The results of this study indicate that extreme hurricane rainfall events affecting the Caribbean region will become more likely with global warming. In a warmer world, extreme events could become the norm with hurricanes like Laura and Marco bringing more rainfall to the regions they hit," she added.

It’s known that climate change has already contributed to increases in Atlantic hurricane activity in recent decades, but the new study has found that intense hurricanes in the Caribbean could be as much as five times more likely if the world doesn’t meet some of the targets from the Paris Agreement. 

Reported in the journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers led by the University of Bristol in the UK ran thousands of hurricane simulations under three climate scenarios: present-day conditions, 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels. Their analysis especially looked at the Caribbean region, taking into account the current landscape to assess the scale and severity of the hurricane. 

The temperatures used in the simulations are based on the aims of the Paris Agreement, which pledged to hold the global average temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels but strive to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

The results show a “100-year storm” affecting the Bahamas would be 4.5 times as likely under the 2°C Paris Agreement scenario compared to the present day. Equally, an event on the same scale of Hurricane Maria in 2017 would be more than twice as likely in a 2°C warmer world, occurring once every 43 years. However, the future is a lot more optimistic under a 1.5°C warmer world. Under this scenario, devastating hurricanes in Eastern regions of the Caribbean would be half as likely. 

Deadly hurricanes will not be the only concern if the world becomes 2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. In 2018, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded that the goal of keeping global warming below 2°C is not strict enough and could still lead to catastrophic, irreversible damage to our ecosystems. Along with an increased risk of drought and deadly heatwaves, a plus-2°C world would also see a huge loss of biodiversity, including the loss of 18 percent of insects, 16 percent of plants, and 8 percent of vertebrates.

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