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In the North Atlantic, hurricanes now happen more often than at any time in the last 150 years, according to new research.
When they make a landfall over cities in the northeastern United States, hurricanes are expected to slow down, and spend even longer intervals wreaking even more certain havoc, a second team of climate scientists warns.
And the same goes for eastern and southeast Asia: as the planetary thermometer creeps ever higher, tropical cyclones could double in destructive power, Chinese scientists say in a third study.
All three findings are based on statistical methods and computer simulations; all are open to challenge; and all three are attempts to settle complex questions inherent in every potential climate extreme. But each of the latest results also supports earlier conclusions based on different techniques: in science, if you ask the same question in different ways, and keep getting the same answers, then those answers are probably right.
And the answers matter: tropical cyclones, typhoons, or hurricanes—the name varies across the oceans, but dangers are always the same—can be the most devastating of all climate extremes. They form over warm ocean, proceed as a swirling storm of colossal speed across an area many hundreds of kilometres wide, and— if they survive for long enough—slam into coastlines with gusts of devastating speed.
A storm’s force increases as the square of wind velocity, and the fiercest storms not only create a trail of destruction, they also carry unimaginable quantities of rainwater to bring sudden lethal flooding. And they can work with the highest tides to create calamitous storm surges. In June, 2021, a typhoon spilled rainwater over Zhengzhou in China at the rate of 150 millimetres an hour. In 1970, a storm surge driven by a cyclone swept over Bangladesh and claimed at least 300,000 and possibly half a million lives.
But questions remain. Is the rise in economic damage more easily explained by population growth than by increases in storm numbers or intensity? And although hurricane records in North America exist for the last 150 years, how accurate is the 19th century data?
New research in the journal Nature Communications finds that, in the North Atlantic at least, hurricane numbers have been on the increase.
“Nobody disagrees that that’s what the historical record shows,” said meteorologist and climate scientist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “On the other hand, most sensible people don’t really trust the historical record that far back in time.”
So Emanuel used sophisticated statistical analysis of climate model outcomes to simulate tropical cyclone activity around the world for the past century and a half. In three different analyses, he got the same result: an increase in North Atlantic hurricane activity was “unequivocal.”
The implication is that as the world warms, the numbers may continue to increase. But the bigger question is: how bad will they get? U.S. scientists report in the journal Earth’s Future that they analysed 35,000 computer-simulated storms from the pre-industrial period to the end of this century. They found that tomorrow’s Atlantic hurricanes will form in greater numbers, reach the coast more quickly, and then slow down as they arrive at the northeastern landmass of the U.S. The payoff will be more wind, rain, flooding, and destruction, with the longest-lived of these storms predicted to last twice as long as today’s.
Between 2010 and 2019, the U.S. coasts were hammered by 19 tropical cyclones — billion-dollar disasters all of them — that clocked up $480 billion in damage. “Think of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, sitting over Texas, and Hurricane Dorian in 2019 over the Bahamas. That prolonged exposure can worsen the impacts,” said study lead Andra Garner, assistant professor at Rowan University. “The work produced yet more evidence of a dire need to cut emissions of greenhouse gases now to stop the climate warming.”
In the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, there is no evidence that tropical cyclones have increased in number over the decades. But their capacity to devastate most certainly has. In the past five decades, tropical cyclones have claimed almost 780,000 lives and triggered more than US$1.4 trillion in economic losses.
Researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science that they analysed cyclone data from 1979 to 2016, then projected how cyclones might change as the planet continues to warm.
They found that, since 1979, there has been a dramatic increase in cyclone impacts on inland regions of eastern and southeastern Asia. Stronger cyclones hit the coasts, lasted for longer—between two and nine hours longer—and penetrated an average of 100 kilometres further inland.
They calculate that, by the end of the century, the fiercest cyclones will last for 56% longer and go 50% even further inland: that’s an additional 4.9 hours of devastation, more than 90 kilometres further from the coast. Their destructive power, under the notorious “business as usual” climate scenario, will almost double.
“The climate crisis will likely continue the increasing trend in landfalling typhoons and their impacts on inland regions, based on high-resolution climate model projections,” said first author Chi-Yung Tam, an Earth systems science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“More Asian inland regions may be exposed to more severe storm-related disasters in the future as a result of the climate crisis.”