Hurricane Ian continued to gain strength before making landfall in Florida today, blasting the state with 155mph winds and causing millions to face evacuation orders as the storm neared Category 5 status.
As Ian approached the US, Jamie Rohme, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center, raised some eyebrows on Tuesday when he seemed to demur about linking the storm to the climate crisis during an interview on CNN.
“We can come back and talk about climate change at a later time,” Mr Rohme told anchor Don Lemon. “I want to focus on the here and now. We think the rapid intensification is probably almost done. There could be a little more intensification as it’s still over the warm waters of the eastern gulf of Mexico, but I don’t think we’re going to get anymore rapid intensification.”
Tension grew as Mr Lemon probed his guest further: “What effect does climate change have on this phenomenon? It seems these storms are intensifying, that’s the question.”
The hurricane specialist, who served as a scientific policy analyst in both the Obama and George W Bush administrations, cautioned against trying to pull out a discrete, measurable impact of climate change on this specific storm, and instead urged people to think more cumulatively about the climate crisis’s impact on global weather.
“I don’t think you can link climate change to any one event,” Mr Rohme continued. “On the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse, but to link it to any one event, I would caution against that.”
“Listen, I grew up there, and these storms are intensifying. Something is causing them to intensify,” Mr Lemon responded before moving on.
Elsewhere in the interview, Mr Rohme further explained the link between the climate crisis and hurricane damages.
“If the globe is warming, and it is, it’s going to retain more moisture, right? It’s going to hold it better. And then a hurricane is going to come and extract it all. So it means it’s going to rain. It’s going to rain harder in future hurricanes. You also don’t need me to tell you that the sea level is rising. You can see it, we can all see it,” he said. “We go to the coast, the coastline’s changing, sea levels rising—that is a higher base or foundation upon which future hurricanes will have to push storm surge. So the storm surge will be deeper and go farther inland. So whether the numbers are increasing or not, the storms that are forming are packing a bigger punch.”
Indeed, NOAA itself is quite clear about the links between the climate crisis and extreme weather.
It has compared planetary warming to “adding fuel to a fire,” because it warms the surfaces of the ocean, which allow growing storms to gather this heat energy and intensify more quickly.
The agency’s website also notes that the climate crisis is inflecting storms in numerous other ways, citing assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate change.
Sea level rise will likely cause higher coastal inundation levels during storm, NOAA notes, while rainfall could increase on the order of 10 to 15 per cent. Meanwhile, the agency says, studies show with medium to high confidence that the climate crisis will make tropical storms more intense and more frequent.
“In summary,” NOAA writes, “it is premature to conclude with high confidence that human-caused increasing greenhouse gases have had a detectable impact on past Atlantic basin hurricane activity, although they are strongly linked to global warming.” The agency also notes there’s “the possibility of a large anthropogenic influence on Atlantic hurricanes.”
Other research on the link between climate change and hurricanes backs up these findings.
A study into 2017 devastating Hurricane Harvey suggests planetary warming made the storm’s rainfall 15 per cent more intense. A 2019 study on Japan’s Typhoon Hagbis concluded the climate crisis added at least $4bn in extra damages.