On Wednesday, May 12, in the middle of 2021 National Hurricane Preparedness Week, the Environmental Protection Agency released its first comprehensively updated data on climate change in four years, adding twelve new climate change indicators and several years of data.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will make its predictions later in May, but communities who are still coming to grips with the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season have been paying very close attention to early projections.
Residents along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast are on alert and prepared for torrential rain, high winds, and serious flooding during hurricane season, compounded by widespread loss of power, communications, and mobility.
But weather patterns are shifting, intensifying, and becoming increasingly more unpredictable, raising the question of just how well prepared we are and how we can adapt our plans to carry on as safely as possible.
“The E.P.A. data can help people make sense of the shifts they’re already seeing in their daily lives,” according to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, who spoke with the New York Times.
INTENSITY TRENDS UPWARDS
The 2020 season was the fifth consecutive above-normal hurricane season, with 30 named tropical cyclonic storms (the most ever). A record 13 of those grew to be hurricanes, six of which were Category 3+ with sustained wind speeds of 111+ mph. Twelve of the 30 storms including six hurricanes made landfall in the U.S.(another record).
The Gulf Coast bore the brunt, landfalling eight significant storms. Five came ashore in Louisiana, including Hurricane Laura which caused catastrophic damage, killing at least 77 people and causing at least $19 billion in total damages. Evacuation and sheltering efforts were complicated by Hurricane Delta which landed 12 miles away a mere six weeks later.
The new EPA data confirms what scientists have believed for some time about the role that climate change plays in the intensity of hurricanes. Climate change drives rising surface temperatures, and that increase is accelerating. Warmer water feeds storm intensity, fueling higher winds and an expanded range.
This warming is accelerating even faster in Alaska where it affects the permafrost. In 2020 the Arctic sea ice cover was the second smallest on record, while oceans reached their warmest temperature. The combination of melting polar ice caps and rising water temperatures has caused sea levels to rise along the East Coast and Gulf Coast making flooding five times more likely than in the 1950s.
Add the higher winds, rising sea levels, and the fact that warmer air can hold more moisture, and we see how climate change can alter the way storms behave. While storms are getting slower, with more time to build up energy, they are increasingly volatile. Rapid intensification, when storms increase their wind speed by 70 miles per hour or more in the 24 hours before landfall will increase from once every 100 years in the climate of the late 20th century to once every 5 - 10 years in the climate of the year 2100, according to MIT hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel.
PREPARING FOR NEW NORMALS
Each decade, NOAA recalculates its benchmarks for “normal” based on the most recent 30-year period for all types of weather and climate conditions. Not surprisingly, this data shows an increase in storms and major hurricanes. NOAA’s detailed predictions aren’t yet finalized for the 2021 hurricane season, but other climate scientists have projected another very active season with more than 20 named storms
How can you get ready? The most important thing you can do is to create a WRITTEN Hurricane plan NOW and share and review it with your family and household. This basic list will get you started, and you can get more details on all of these steps, including templates for your own written plan, at https://www.weather.gov/wrn/hurricane-preparedness and https://www.ready.gov/hurricanes
- First, determine your personal hurricane risk. Learn what you can expect where you live, and plan accordingly. If you live in hurricane-prone areas, remember that although the season officially begins June 1, the 2020 season ramped up in May.
Keep in mind that hurricanes are not just a coastal problem. Rain, tornadoes, and other damaging weather can linger inland from landfall, as far as the Midwest and New England.
- Create two lists: a contact list that includes at least one person outside the hurricane-prone area, and a hurricane emergency supply to keep replenished throughout the season
- Determine if you live in a hurricane evacuation zone. Identify who will issue hurricane evacuation orders and how. Develop an Evacuation Plan for your household and also identify locations where you will ride out the storm if needed.
If anyone in your household is disabled or at-risk, this is the time to identify any additional help you’ll need, and how you will get that help during an emergency.
- Prepare your home and property for the coming hurricane season. Identify your vulnerabilities, especially if you lose power and/or water and are housebound. After 2020’s hurricanes and winter ice storms so many homeowners invested in backup generators that even the largest supplier, Generac, had trouble keeping up with demand. So, plan ahead.
- Review/update insurance policies.
- Collect hard copies of your important papers so you can access them when needed. Create an external digital backup.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was relentless, all the more so as the nation battled a new coronavirus pandemic --which also complicated evacuation, sheltering, and everything else we need in a weather emergency. But investments in research and forecast models helped to advance lead time for forecasters and emergency management partners,
But, with the likeliness of increasing intensity and unpredictability as a result of climate change, demands on our energy grid are a huge concern. Many more homeowners and families are exploring and implementing measures to improve their energy independence, using wind, solar and backup generators as part of their adverse weather preparation plans.