The Earth is getting warmer. That's a fact. And as the Earth gets warmer, we expect to see larger and stronger hurricanes. Also a fact. But there are folks denying these facts, even to the point of blaming the liberal media for the fact that hurricanes are in the news.
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Don't Expect to 'Win' an Argument Here
If you find yourself discussing hurricanes and climate change with such a person, first, stop and think. Ask yourself: Do I want to make myself mad at this person? And, How much time do I have to spend on this? Proceed with caution.
Dear Lifehacker, How do I deal with someone who's completely irrational? Every time we disagree on a topic, I try to present evidence and information to support my position, and he dismisses them and gets really angry, as if I'm attacking him personally. He has been known to dismiss scientific studies and encyclopedia articles because of typos, or because they were from last year and not this year, and chosen to reject evidence out of hand just because he disagrees. How do I get out of heated arguments with him without just throwing up my hands and letting him think he's right? Thanks, Frustrated Debater
Somebody who has really dug their heels in about climate change is not going to suddenly reverse course. But you can help to lay some groundwork for their eventually being able to take a clearer look at things.
Understand How Climate Change Affects Hurricanes
OK smartypants, how does climate change make hurricanes worse? Here are the basics you might want to know:
Warm water powers hurricanes. The heat causes warm air to rise, and nearby air gets sucked in to take its place. This air rises too, and before you know it, you have a system of air in constant motion. (Check out this lesson from NASA for more detail on the process.) So the warmer the ocean, the more intense the hurricanes that can form.
Warmer air makes for more rainfall. Warm air carries more water, so that when the rain falls, a warmer hurricane simply has more moisture to dump out.
Sea level rise makes flooding worse. The higher the ocean, the higher the flooding we can expect to see from storm surges. Researchers from Climate Central calculated that sea level rise alone — not counting any effects from higher temperatures in oceans — will mean that in many areas, 100-year floods will soon happen every 10 years or so.
Hurricane is only the name for these storms in the Atlantic ocean, by the way; they are typhoons and cyclones in other parts of the world. The general term for all of these is tropical cyclone because they form a cyclical wind pattern, and they originate over warm tropical waters.
Hurricanes have always happened, and some of them are devastating. That's true even without climate change getting involved. So you can't blame climate change with certainty for this hurricane, or for the fact that that one is category 5 rather than category 4. Climate change gets credit for the pattern of increasingly devastating hurricane seasons, not necessarily for any one hurricane.
Climate scientists disagree on whether this year's hurricanes owe their strength to climate change. But that isn't because they aren't sure that climate change is happening (it is) or that warmer oceans beget stronger hurricanes (they do). No, they're debating whether this is the beginning of an upward trend, or whether this was an unusual "normal" year and we have a little while before the hurricanes get really bad.
Here's the century's forecast, from a report on global warming and hurricanes by NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which acknowledges that warming is happening and is human caused but declines to say whether the upward trend in hurricane intensity has already begun:
[I]t is likely that climate warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and to have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes. In our view, there are better than even odds that the numbers of very intense (category 4 and 5) hurricanes will increase by a substantial fraction in some basins.
The bottom line: It's certain that climate change makes hurricanes worse; it's uncertain whether you can blame climate change for something as specific as Irma's record-breaking wind speeds or Harvey's exact amount of rain.