Was Hurricane Irma a climate change phenomenon?

The British always love to talk about the weather. Perhaps it’s the variability of the climate where the UK is situated. However, for many months to come the weather in the Atlantic is set to be the stimulus for some debate. At least it ought to be, as the politicians and scientists in America seek to be heard by their President and the environmental regulator who seem to have dismissed climate change as a ‘hoax’.

For hundreds of years scientists have worked hard to gain an understanding of our planet, how it works and the effects of human activity upon it. The laws of nature do not change and scientists can predict hurricane activity. Irma, Jose and Katia were no surprise. Dr Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with the Climate Prediction Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicted them and had identified that this summer would be an active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. Since the season began on 1st  June  there have been 12 named storms, four of which strengthened into hurricanes, with maximum sustained winds above 73 miles per hour. “We’re seeing the activity we predicted,” comments Dr Bell.

Dr Bell and his team understand how Hurricanes are formed. They are fuelled by warm ocean surface temperatures and require lower wind shear to help them build.  Irma is unusual as a ridge of high pressure prevented it travelling into the cooler northern ocean, sending it westward intensify with an abundance of warm Atlantic water. Coupled with six cycles of a phenomenon called eye-wall, Irma grew and persisted for three consecutive days in the Atlantic Ocean as a Category 5 storm with maximum winds of 185 mph for 37 hours.

Dr Bell and his team have clearly done an excellent job of predicting and forecasting hurricanes and their scientific knowledge and understanding has helped save lives with thousands of people being evacuated from Florida before Irma hit land and wreaked havoc.

When it comes to taking immediate short term action in the face of adversity, the American government clearly took rapid and appropriate action to protect its people in the face of an environmental calamity. However, it seems that politicians can be very selective about the scientific evidence they choose to believe and that they care to dismiss.  For years scientists have been predicting global warming and there is extensive research on greenhouse gases and their effects on influencing the environment. Yet President Trump walked away from the Paris Climate Agreement to protect American jobs and businesses. The environmental regulator too has shunned the scientific evidence. Mr. Scott Pruitt, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has declared that carbon dioxide emissions from cars, power plants and other sources are not the primary contributor to global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. The E.P.A. has removed many mentions of climate change from its website and is rolling back regulations aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions.

Time to talk Climate change?

The scientists in American understand the political agenda and appear to be careful with the wording of their funding proposals as they know that research on climate change will head for the bottom of the pile. The American administration is also suggesting that to discuss climate change in the light of recent events is insensitive. On the other side of the pond the rhetoric is more direct. Climate experts are clear that Irma and the pattern of three hurricanes in a row can occur naturally and may not have been the result of climate change. However, climate change contributes to the strength and energy of the hurricanes increasing the damage they do. “Climate change may not have caused Hurricane Irma, but it is making its impacts a whole lot worse,” said Dave Reay, Professor of Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh. “Rising sea levels and a warmer, wetter atmosphere are combining to intensify flood risks all around the world.”

According to Bloomberg, cleaning up after Irma in Florida is expected to cost over 50 billion dollars and a further 30 billion dollars in the Caribbean and Cuba. So, after the clean-up will President Trump and the EPA engage with the scientist, reassess their position on climate change and make changes in fossil fuel policies? Despite Mr. Pruitt suggesting that it is an insensitive time to discuss long term prevention, once clean up gets underway it is important to cease the moment to examine long term mitigation strategies and to listen and act on well researched scientific knowledge.