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Damage from whopper hurricanes rising for many reasons

The Atlantic is increasingly spawning more major hurricanes. Some people argue the increase is due to unchecked coastal development, while others will point to man-made climate change from the burning of coal, oil, and gas. In fact, both are responsible.

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A destructive storm rose from warm waters. Again.

America and the world are getting more frequent and bigger multibillion-dollar tropical catastrophes like Hurricane Laura, which is menacing the U.S. Gulf Coast, because of a combination of increased coastal development, natural climate cycles, reductions in air pollution and man-made climate change, experts say.

The list of recent whoppers keeps growing: Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, Michael, Dorian. And hurricane experts have no doubt that Laura will be right there with them.

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One of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S., Laura barreled across Louisiana on Thursday, shearing off roofs and killing at least six people while carving a destructive path hundreds of miles inland.

A full assessment of the damage wrought by the Category 4 system was likely to take days, and the threat of additional damage loomed as new tornado warnings were issued after dark in Arkansas and Mississippi even as the storm weakened into a depression.

Damage from whopper hurricanes rising for many reasons
Buildings and homes are damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, near Lake Charles, La. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

There’s now a trail of demolished buildings, entire neighborhoods left in ruins, and almost 900,000 homes and businesses without power.

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“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute, catastrophic damage that we thought was likely,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “But we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage.”

Laura’s top wind speed of 150 mph (241 kph) put it among the strongest systems on record in the U.S. Forecasters had warned that the storm surge of 15 to 20 feet would be “unsurvivable” and could push 40 miles inland. Edwards said the storm surge wound up in the range of 9 feet to 12 feet.

It was the seventh named storm to strike the U.S. this year, setting a new record for U.S. landfalls by the end of August. The old record was six in 1886 and 1916, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. Laura was tied with five other storms for the fifth-most powerful U.S. hurricane, behind the 1935’s Labor Day storm, 1969’s Camille, 1992’s Andrew, and 2004’s Charley.

Whopper hurricanes

They’re a mess at least partially of our own making, said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Institute at the University of South Carolina.

“We are seeing an increase of intensity of these phenomena because we as a society are fundamentally changing the Earth and at the same time we are moving to locations that are more hazardous,” Cutter said.

Damage from whopper hurricanes rising for many reasons
FILE – In this Aug. 29, 2017, file photo, water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods from floodwaters brought on by Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston. Nasty hurricanes that cause billions of dollars in damage are hitting more often. Laura, which is threatening the U.S. Gulf Coast, is only the latest. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

In the last three years, the United States has had seven hurricane disasters that each caused at least $1 billion in damage, totaling $335 billion. In all of the 1980s, there were six, and their damage totaled $38.2 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All those figures are adjusted for the cost of living.

The Atlantic is increasingly spawning more major hurricanes, according to an Associated Press analysis of NOAA hurricane data since 1950. That designation refers to storms with at least 111-mile-per-hour (179-kilometer-per-hour) winds that are the ones that do the most damage. The Atlantic now averages three major hurricanes a year, based on a 30-year running average. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was two.

The Atlantic’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy — a measurement that takes into account the number of storms, their strength, and how long they last — is now 120 on a 30-year running average. Thirty years ago, it was in the 70s or 80s on average.

Some people argue the increase is due to unchecked coastal development, while others will point to man-made climate change from the burning of coal, oil, and gas. In fact, both are responsible, said former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate.

“There’s a lot of factors going on,” he said.

When it comes to hurricane risk, a major factor is “the amount of stuff in the way of natural peril and the vulnerability of the stuff in the way,” said Mark Bove, a meteorologist who works for the insurance firm Munich Re U.S.

Damage from whopper hurricanes rising for many reasons
FILE – In this Sept. 26, 2017, file photo, Nestor Serrano walks on the upstairs floor of his home, where the walls were blown off, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Nasty hurricanes that cause billions of dollars in damage are hitting more often. Laura, which is threatening the U.S. Gulf Coast, is only the latest. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

One factor that increases the possibility that there will be “stuff in the way” of a major storm is that federal disaster policy and flood insurance subsidize and encourage people to rebuild in risky areas, Fugate said.

After storms, communities “always say they are going to rise from the ashes,” and, too often, they build the same way in the same place for the same vulnerability and the same outcome, Fugate said.

In addition, some places, like Houston, don’t limit development in areas that could serve as flood control zones if left empty and allow development that’s not disaster resilient, said Kathleen Tierney, former director of the Natural Hazards Center at Colorado University.

Now add in the meteorology.

Scientists agree that waters are warming, and that serves as hurricane fuel, said NOAA climate scientist Jim Kossin. A study by Kossin found that, once a storm formed, the chances of its attaining major storm status globally increased by 8% a decade since 1979. In the Atlantic, chances went up by 49% a decade.

But scientists disagree on why waters are warming. They know climate change is a factor — but they say it’s not the biggest driver and disagree on what else may be behind it.

Some argue it’s because of a 25- to 30-year natural global cycle that acts like a giant conveyor belt, carrying different levels of salt and temperature around the globe, including into the part of the tropical Atlantic off Africa where the worst hurricanes form, Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said.

When the water in the northern Atlantic is extra warm, the water in those tropical hurricane breeding grounds is unusually hot, and the hurricane season is abnormally active, Klotzbach said. Such a busy period started in 1995 and might end soon as northern Atlantic waters shift to a cooler regime, he said.

Klotzbach acknowledged that one problem with this theory is that the waters in the northern Atlantic have been unusually cool this summer, and still there have been lots of storms. It may have been a blip, he said.

But MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel says it’s because another counterintuitive factor is at play: There are more storms because of cleaner air.

European air pollution cooled the area over Africa in the 1960s and 1970s and put more dust into the air — both of which tamped down on any hurricanes, he said. When the pollution eased, Africa got warmer, more storms developed, and that’s why it’s such a busy period, Emanuel said.

While climate change is not the most important factor in warming waters, it contributes to creating more damaging storms in other ways, by causing a rising sea level that worsens storm surges and making storms move more slowly and produce more rain, scientists say.

All of this means that we should get used to more catastrophic storms, according to Munich Re’s Bove.

In addition, he said: “Climate change will be a bigger driver of losses in the future.”

Damage from whopper hurricanes rising for many reasons

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