Hurricanes: A wake up call on climate change

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Hurricanes: A wake up call on climate change

Rising instances of mega storms have prompted environmental scientists and researchers to explore the underlying causes for them to occur. President Trump must now realise the importance of mitigating climate change and rejoin the global efforts to save the planet from the ill effects of climate change

The wrath of hurricane Harvey and Irma over the US has left many dead and thousands displaced. The intensity of hurricane Irma was such that a maximum wind speed of 300 km/hr was recorded for an astonishing period of 37 hours — this made Irma the most powerful and long lasting storms in the past 30 years that the US has weathered.

The power of the storm prompted the US authorities to affect one of the largest evacuations in recent times by getting nearly 5.6 million people to vacate the sensitive and storm prone areas of Florida. Making matters worse, two more hurricanes — Jose, a category five-mega storm, and Katia — are expected to follow close on Irma’s heels.

Just prior to Irma, hurricane Harvey, a category four storm, had wreaked havoc and left disaster in its wake. The state of Texas in the US bore the brunt of the hurricane with nearly 70 confirmed casualties within a short period of time.

Hurricane Harvey too is being stated as one of the most costly natural disasters in American history. Estimated economic loss is pegged at a staggering $80 billion. The frequency of these mega storms is increasing every year. Irrespective of whether they are named as hurricanes, cyclones or typhoons, the impact delivered by them is the same — and that is unimaginable loss to life and property.

Rising instances of these mega storms are now prompting environmental scientists and researchers to explore on an urgent basis the underlying causes for these storms to occur. While climate change is being considered as the major contributing factor, the immediate triggering cause is the warming of the ocean surfaces. Storms are formed over the oceans by the warming of their surfaces. When air above the sea surface in certain regions of these oceans warms up to about 27 degrees Celsius or more, it rises into the atmosphere and cold air from the surrounding areas rushes in to take its place.

This phenomenon creates an upward wind due to lower pressure at the surface and higher pressure above. The wind carries water vapour along with it and takes the form of a swirl. This water vapour then forms clouds, which makes a circular formation, and sucks up the warm air and moisture from the ocean below, adding to their size. Such formations can grow to enormous sizes of many 100 kilometres wide with a tropical depression at its centre, called an eye. The eye remains at low pressure and calm with strong winds from all around flowing into it.

As the oceans continue to heat up and create an enabling environment for the mega storms, climate change is only making things worse. A study by the Niels Bohr Institute in 2013 predicted that there would be a 10-fold increase in frequency of high-intensity hurricanes if the climate becomes two degrees Celsius warmer.

The locations of landfall for these mega storms are also assuming critical significance, especially for India. A joint study by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that almost all of the tropical cyclone damages from climate change are concentrated in North America, East Asia and the Caribbean.

The studies also put south Asian nations, especially India and Bangladesh, at a high risk. This is reflected by a study conducted by the University of Allahabad, which states that a greater number of cyclonic disturbances along the Indian coastline are increasingly intensifying into tropical cyclones in the post-monsoon period.

Climate change, due to rising green house gas emissions, is emerging as a serious threat that is stoking the occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes. With an increase in carbon, methane and other greenhouse gas output, local weather and global climate is further agitated, heated and adversely affected.

Given these conditions, a global state of emergency needs to be announced for climate change and urgent steps need to be undertaken to reduce the global carbon footprint. Extraordinary measures must be taken to promote renewable energy and polluters not adhering to the eco friendly energy guidelines must be made to accept full responsibility for their actions and be held liable.

Unfortunate hurricanes in the US have made one thing clear for the Trump Administration — climate change is not a hoax; it is not only real but also very dangerous for human existence. President Trump must now at least realise the importance of mitigating climate change and rejoin the global efforts to save the planet from the ill effects of climate change.

(The writer is an environmental journalist)

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