Now, Every Storm Is a Climate Change Storm
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been busy warning millions of people for days now to evacuate their homes, with good reason.
But what he won't say, and he won't let any state employee say, is that the sheer power of this storm is directly related to climate change and the effects of a warming planet. And to put it simply, now, every storm is a climate change storm.
Matthew shocked storm-watchers last week when it gained energy and grew from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane so quickly that it shattered records. On Tuesday, Matthew weakened into a Category 4 storm and slammed Haiti, and even though the storm had weakened, Climate Signals nonetheless reports that it's the most powerful storm to hit Haiti in a generation.
As it makes landfall in Florida, Matthew has also broken the record for the longest-lived hurricane of its strength in the eastern Caribbean, and it's the only hurricane on record to have ever made landfall north of Miami along the east coast of Florida in October.
But thanks to climate change, storms like Matthew are becoming more and more severe. As Seth Borenstein wrote at Phys.org recently, Hurricane Matthew is "wet, wild and weird," which is also a great way to describe the planet's climate now that we're clearly seeing the effects of global warming and climate change.
The Atlantic's hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to November 30, but the statistical peak is September 10, when ocean temperatures are high and wind shear is low. That's changed now, and climate scientist James Hansen recently published a paper showing that Earth's global temperature right now is comparable only to a time 115,000 years ago, when that warming pushed the sea level up 20 to 30 feet higher than it is today.
And as human activity has warmed the planet, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory point out that the oceans have dramatically warmed over the last century because "the ocean absorbs more than 90 percent of the Earth's excess heat increase that is associated with global warming. The observed ocean and atmosphere warming is a result of continuing greenhouse gas emissions."
A warmer ocean and a warmer atmosphere mean that there's more energy in the ocean and more energy in the atmosphere, and more energy in the ocean and in the atmosphere means more fuel for smaller tropical depressions to quickly grow into powerful superstorms, like Matthew did.
Climate scientist Michael Mann told the Huffington Post that, "The nearly unprecedented rapid intensification we saw with this storm is favored by warmer oceans and greater ocean heat content."
Part of this has to do with the fact that oceans aren't just getting warmer at the surface, they're getting warmer deep below the surface too.
Scientists with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found earlier this year that half of the heat that's been added to the ocean has been added in just the last two decades.
And 35 percent of that extra warmth was found at depths below 700 meters, a sharp increase from just two decades ago, when only 20 percent of the extra heat was stored below 700 meters in the ocean.
Normally, when a hurricane hits the Caribbean, it stirs up cooler waters from deep below the surface, and those cooler waters help to weaken the storm and dissipate some of its energy before it makes landfall. With those deeper waters now holding 15 percent more warmth than they held two decades ago, there's less cool water that can be stirred to the surface to break up the storm's energy; instead, now there's much warmer water being brought to the surface that feeds the hurricane.
Climate deniers roll their eyes when we say that this hurricane, and every storm now, is connected to climate change. Rush Limbaugh even accused the National Hurricane Center of being partisan and overhyping Hurricane Matthew's severity.
Rush is of course wrong, and there's no need to "desperately" prove climate change or how it contributes to more frequent, more powerful and more lethal storm events. It's a simple scientific fact. No one is saying that there wouldn't be any hurricanes or powerful thunderstorms if we stopped burning carbon and tackled runaway climate change. What climate scientists and others are saying is that hurricanes and storms wouldn't be as frequent and severe as they are, if humans weren't warming the planet.
It simply makes sense that more heat in the atmosphere and the oceans means more energy for storms like Matthew to feed.
There's also more water vapor in the atmosphere, which provides even more energy and more fuel for storms to form and rapidly build intensity, even over land—like we saw in the 1,000-year event in Ellicott City, Maryland, earlier this year that killed two people and cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.
Tropical storm Matthew would have likely formed anyway in the absence of global warming and climate change, but the fact that Matthew so quickly became such a powerful hurricane so late in the season is directly linked to the fact that human activity, specifically, burning fossil fuels, is causing the planet to warm.
As a result, 2016 is the first year in recorded history that CO2 levels in the atmosphere have topped 400 parts per million for the entire year, and that means that there is a certain amount of warming and climate change that is guaranteed into the future.
But that's even more reason to take bold action now.
It's time for Gov. Rick Scott and the mainstream corporate media to start being responsible and start telling the truth about how human-caused global warming fuels and strengthens hurricanes like Matthew and the extreme storm events we've seen across the world this year.
We can't stop every extreme storm event from happening, but we can demand that our politicians make our planet's climate crisis their top priority; we can put a price on carbon and start funding efforts to make our cities greener and more resilient; and, we can hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for lying to consumers and investors about the threat that their business model poses to humanity.