Power. Mother nature style. The kind that can drop a city to its knees. To the tune of billions of dollars and thousands of fatalities. Will the future bring more of these? Scientists aren’t sure, but they certainly anticipate storms that pack a wallop.
“I look at climate with two aspects: intensity (how hot or cold) and variability, which describes how much the weather varies from one week to the next,” says climatologist Laurence S. Kalkstein, PhD, a professor at the University of Miami and the past president of the International Society of Bio-meteorology. “Variability has increased. Things that are more extreme are happening more frequently, but whether that’s a normal trend or whether it’s going to change is very hard to say. We’ve only been taking records for 120 years, and that’s a very short period. But I think it’s safe to say that strong events, due to that variability increase, have been occurring more frequently.”
It’s also safe to say, as you’re about to see, that predictions are not easy.
When is hurricane season?
Most of us keep our eyes tuned to the weather between June 1 and Nov. 30, because that’s the official period of “hurricane season.” However, if you’re near the water, you should know that hurricanes can actually strike any time; it’s just that those are the dates when the ocean conditions are most ripe for storms.“June 1 is no magic number,” Kalkstein says.
“Hurricanes don’t pay attention to the dates. The probability for hurricanes increases as water warms and reaches a peak in September or early October at the warmest and air aloft is at its calmest. However, it’s possible that a hurricane can occur other times of year if the conditions are right.”
Three top killers
Hurricane Katrina 2005
Katrina, which caused more than $75 billion in damages, was responsible for approximately 1,200 reported deaths, including about 1,000 in Louisiana and 200 in Mississippi. Seven additional deaths occurred in southern Florida. Katrina caused catastrophic damage in southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Storm surge along the Mississippi coast caused total destruction of many structures, with the surge damage extending several miles inland. Similar damage occurred in portions of southeastern Louisiana southeast of New Orleans.
Hurricane Hugo 1989
Hugo was responsible for 21 deaths in the mainland United States, five more in Puerto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands, and 24 more elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Damage estimates are $7 billion in the mainland United States and $1 billion in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Hurricane Andrew 1992
This storm was responsible for 23 deaths in the United States and three more in the Bahamas. The hurricane caused $26.5 billion in damage in the United States. Damage in the Bahamas was estimated at $250 million. — National Weather Service
The problem of predictions
If you’ve got your eye on the weather every night during the news, you’re quite familiar with the fact that many storms can be predicted with accuracy at least a few days before they approach your town. What’s more difficult is predicting how many storms will hit the United States over the course of a year—particularly when more issues are involved than just storm fronts.
Climatologists study previous and current weather patterns and then use that data to project what could happen in the future. However, as any frequent viewer of weather reports can tell you, predictions aren’t always accurate.
The reason is because many factors go into the whole picture of the weather. Such is definitely the case with big storms such as hurricanes. “We have to be careful with storm predictions,” says Kalkstein. “The future of hurricanes is dependent on so many variables that it’s hard to predict.”
For instance, he notes, it may appear obvious that as water temperatures rise, there should be more hurricanes, but that isn’t always the case. “Hurricanes also need high pressures aloft so the air from the hurricane rises and exits the storm,” Kalkstein says. “Warm temperatures without the aloft pressures will not be favorable to hurricanes.
Then there’s the fact that El Ninos usually coincide with low periods of hurricanes in the Atlantic and no one knows what the frequency of El Ninos will be.”
If you’re ready to move far from the water due to the fact that additional storms seem to hit the U.S. every year, it’s possible that you’re just familiar with the names of them—not with the damage.
“We’ve definitely had an increased number in named storms, but it appears that the news—because of better observing equipment and maybe biases—is calling more storms by name,” Kalkstein says. He points to the fact that although Hurricane Katrina was a huge storm, “after Katrina, we didn’t have a landfalling hurricane for several years, so many of them peaceably go out to sea. So then the question becomes not how many hurricanes there are, but how many will hit the U.S., and projecting that is highly uncertain.”
Man’s impact on warming
Although most scientists agree that the planet has gotten warmer, it’s unclear to many climatologists whether humans have caused the increased temperatures. “I don’t believe that they’ll be able to scientifically say for sure whether humans have caused warming in our lifetime,” claims climatologist Laurence S. Kalkstein, PhD. “It will take more climate research to determine that.”
In addition, “some climatologists point to recent colder than usual temperatures in Russia to argue that global warming arguments are specious,” Kalkstein says. “So although many scientists think warming will make a huge impact on our lives, we don’t know the numerical odds of that happening.”
Although scientists tend to agree that the temperature has risen over the past several years, it may be too soon to say whether that’s a long-term cycle or what our role as humans has been in potentially creating a warmer planet. “I’ve studied climate my whole life, and I can say I don’t know the answer,” Kalkstein says. “In Europe, where they’ve had records for longer than we have (although they may not be thermometer records), the results show that climate is cyclical.
We’ve been through all kinds of periods, multi-decadal warm periods and cool periods. I believe the climate has warmed maybe a degree or so even though there are some cold periods, but in my opinion, we can’t say for certain whether it’s linked to humans.” One thing that appears to be certain is that powerful storms will continue to hammer the U.S.