Ian moves up north

Hurricane Ian crossed the Florida panhandle overnight. The storm dumped a foot of rain on some cities, caused severe flooding and left millions of people statewide without power.

Ian became a tropical storm early this morning, but the downgrade doesn’t mean the danger has passed. The storm is expected to bring high winds, heavy rain and storm surge to Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas for the next several days.

Ian embodies several of the major hurricane trends of recent years as the world grapples with the effects of climate change. It’s a strong storm, and strong storms are becoming more common in the Atlantic Ocean as its surface water has warmed. Ian also quickly transformed from a relatively weak storm to a strong one, another phenomenon that has become more common. And Ian is about to drop massive amounts of rain, which, combined with higher sea levels, could cause damaging flooding.

This graph, by our colleague Ashley Wu, shows the increasing frequency of severe storms (Category 4 or 5) since 1980, when satellite imagery began to reliably track Atlantic hurricanes.

Climate change is part of the reason, say many scientists. “Warmer water fuels storms, and the waters have definitely warmed up,” explained our colleague Elena Shao, who covers weather. Daniel Gilford, a meteorologist at Climate Central, a research group, likens hurricanes to engines, like those in a car. Warmer water increases the amount of energy that feeds into a hurricane, causing it to spin faster.

“As humans increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the atmosphere and oceans warm,” he said. “That leads to more fuel available for hurricanes.”

As it happens, Gilford became interested in climate science in part because he grew up in Clearwater, Florida, and lived there during the deadly 2004 hurricane season, which included Frances and Ivan. She now lives in suburban Orlando and has spent this week tying down items on her property, stocking up on supplies and preparing to welcome members of her family. They evacuated the west coast of Florida, near where Ian made landfall.

Ian has become the 46th category 4 or 5 hurricane in the Atlantic in the last 20 years, including Frances and Ivan. That is almost as much as occurred during the last 40 years of the 20th century.

Over the past few days, conditions were nearly ideal for Ian to rapidly intensify, Elena said: very warm water, combined with winds that weren’t rapidly changing speed or direction. Now that Ian has made landfall, some of the biggest risks are related to water (rather than wind), including flooding and storm surge. Climate change appears to have slowed down the speed at which storms travel. It has also led them to produce more precipitation and raise sea levels.

(These maps trace the path of Hurricane Ian.)

Climate change isn’t the only force shaping hurricanes, Elena points out. The La Niña weather phenomenon, which the Northern Hemisphere is currently experiencing, may also be playing a role. And not all aspects of climate change contribute to more intense storms.

But these caveats do not change the overall picture. Climate change has already contributed to the rise of destructive hurricanes like Ian, and their effects continue to grow. Unless the world drastically cuts greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years, deadly storms are likely to become even more common than they are already destined to be.

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