Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle Wednesday as the most powerful storm to hit the continental United States in nearly 50 years, packing winds of up to 155 miles (250 kilometres) per hour, killing six people so far, and triggering immediate analysis that connected the new strength of recent hurricanes to ocean warming caused by climate change.
“Supercharged by abnormally warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Category 4 storm crashed ashore in the early afternoon near Mexico Beach, a tourist town about midway along the Panhandle, a 200-mile stretch of white sand beach resorts, fishing towns, and military bases,” the St. Augustine Record reports. “After it ravaged the Panhandle, Michael entered south Georgia as a Category 3 hurricane—the most powerful in recorded history for that part of the neighbouring state.”
In North Florida, “Michael battered the shoreline with sideways rain, powerful gusts, and crashing waves, swamping streets and docks, flattening trees, stripping away leaves, shredding awnings, and peeling away shingles,” the Record adds. “It also set off transformer explosions and knocked out power to more than 388,000 homes and businesses.”
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said a storm that powerful could leave the area “uninhabitable for weeks or months”.
“THIS IS A WORST CASE SCENARIO for the Florida Panhandle!!” tweeted National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini in a statement. “Listen to your local emergency officials. Stay Inside & Survive!” The high winds correlated to a more technical measure of Michael’s intensity—at levels as low as 919 millibars, its barometric pressure was the third-lowest for any hurricane ever to hit the U.S. “The winds responded,” the Washington Post reports, amping up to a borderline Category 5 storm.
And the winds weren’t even the storm’s “most life-threatening quality,” CityLab reports. “More than 150 miles of Florida’s coastline [were] temporarily swallowed by the ocean, as storm surge between nine and 14 feet swamp[ed] the shore. Nine feet of storm surge—in other words, the minimum forecast for this storm—is enough to turn cars into floating battering rams and cover one-story buildings.”
But the most notable thing about Hurricane Michael’s development was how quickly it got so strong. Its progression created a singularly bizarre moment when Donald Trump actually got something right (and spoke something truthfully), declaring from the Oval Office Wednesday that the storm “grew into a monster”.
“What sticks out about Hurricane Michael’s development is that it got very strong, very quickly,” CityLab notes. “If you don’t live in Florida, and you feel like you only started hearing about Michael right before it made landfall, that’s because…you did. Unlike Hurricane Florence, which idled across the Atlantic Ocean as a powerful storm for days, Michael spun through the stages of hurricane formation relatively quickly. It became a tropical storm on Sunday afternoon. Only on Tuesday did it intensify into a major hurricane, with winds above 111 miles per hour.”
In atmospheric terms, that was because Michael “got lucky,” the article continues. “To borrow the president’s analogy, you can think of a hurricane as an enormous monster that feeds off oceanic energy (that is, warm ocean water) and converts it into atmospheric energy (that is, howling winds and terrible storm surge). This beast can grow to be very powerful, but it’s also scared by the slightest disturbance: Smaller local storms, or blustery winds in the high atmosphere, can weaken a hurricane or limit its growth.”
But as Michael approached the Panhandle, “it found waters that were very warm: almost 4.0°F above normal. At the same time, it entered a patch of air that was relatively calm and windless. With lots of watery energy to devour, and few breezes to disturb its feast, Michael could quickly swell into a colossus.”
It was the same process of “rapid intensification” that turned Hurricane Harvey into such a massive hit on Houston—especially on its poorest neighbourhoods—last year. And it’s a climate-fueled phenomenon that could make severe storms tougher to predict, meteorologist Kerry Emanuel told CityLab, after three decades in which the National Hurricane Center has been scrambling to improve its forecasts.
“Scientists won’t formally know whether climate change played a role in Michael’s rapid intensification for several months,” the publication notes. “But local weather experts have already said Michael is exactly what they would expect to see in a climate-changed world.”
The storm cut crude oil production in the Gulf of Mexico by 42%, the Seeking Alpha investors’ blog reports.
In the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof points out that denying the reality of climate change isn’t helping the Florida state government (or Palm Beach-based hate radio host Rush Limbaugh) weather the storm, any more then legislating against the use of climate science in state emergency planning protected North Carolina from Hurricane Florence last month.
“Alas, denying climate change doesn’t actually prevent it,” Kristof writes. “Some folks will say this isn’t the moment for politics. But don’t we have a responsibility to mitigate the next disaster?”
With the arrival of the hurricane, Grist notes that Florida now “has it all”—from hurricanes, to toxic algae, to stifling heat. But the storm may actually help climate-denying governor Rick Scott in his bid for a U.S. senate seat in mid-term elections next week, adds reporter Nathanael Johnson.
“Floridians are right in line with the rest of the country when it comes to climate change, with 70% agreeing that it’s a thing,” Johnson writes. But “if anything, the hurricane is likely to give voters the warm fuzzies for Scott,” since “it gives him the chance to go out and do leaderly stuff like activating the National Guard. His campaign had just started running an ad called ‘Leadership,’ portraying him as the guy who got Florida through previous hurricanes. Polls show that Scott got more popular after those storms.”
Democratic senate incumbent Bill Nelson is responding with an ad that blames Scott for the deaths of 11 seniors due to heat exposure, and with charges that his administration failed to prevent profiteering during past hurricane cleanups.