As a meteorologist and as someone whose Ph.D. Dissertation focused on separating the impacts of climate change from climate variability, I don't dispute the concept of climate change. Climate change is an inarguable fact – 97% of scientists agree - and the impacts associated with it need to be addressed immediately.
Extreme weather events, like Hurricane Matthew, typically serve as the touch point to start the conversation about climate change within the media. Most people, except weather nerds like myself, don't remember the exact maximum wind speed Andrew brought or the exact storm surge levels Sandy, Katrina or Ike brought but they do remember the indelible images of people digging through the remainder of their homes, or wandering the streets in search of clean drinking water. The desire of people to not suffer themselves, or watch others suffer, is why extreme weather events make such a powerful backdrop when discussing the potential impacts of climate change.
However, attributing the occurrence of any individual weather event to climate change goes down a slippery slope, and in the long run, can do more harm than good when trying to influence action on climate change.
On both the Huffington Post and Slate , two online publications I regularly read, there were articles stating that Matthew was exacerbated by, or directly caused by climate change. Both articles noted Matthew's rapid intensification from a tropical storm to a category 5 hurricane so late in the year, and stated that it's unusual for such an intense hurricane to form this late in the year. Hillary Clinton, while campaigning in Florida with Al Gore, linked Hurricane Matthew itself to climate change.
Matthew was, unquestionably, a horrible, devastating storm for parts of the Caribbean and southeastern United States. Haiti took a direct hit from the hurricane when it was at category 4 intensity; to date, the official death toll is in the hundreds, but unconfirmed reports have it well over 1,000, and a cholera epidemic is raging in affected areas. In the Bahamas, Matthew blew across the most developed areas at Category 4 intensity as well; insured losses are expected to exceed the losses from 2004's Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne combined.
In the United States, the story with Matthew was water, not wind. Thanks to a further east track than originally forecasted, the core of Matthew's highest winds stayed offshore. However, both the coastal flooding and rainfall has devastated large parts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Jacksonville, Savannah, St. Augustine and Charleston all experienced significant storm surge, undoubtedly enhanced by the sea level rise over the last century. In North Carolina, over 15 inches of rain fell, leading to dam and levee failures, and catastrophic inland flood situation. Damages in the US so far are estimated at USD 6 billion.
But for all the death and destruction Matthew wrought, is it that uncommon? While a hurricane of Matthew's intensity so late in the year is not typical, it's certainly not unheard of either. August through October are the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. Hurricanes Hattie (1961), Mitch (1998) and Wilma (2005) all reached category 5 intensity in late October. Hurricane Lenny (1999), in addition to taking a bizarre west to east track, attained maximum sustained winds of 155 mph in mid-November. There's even evidence of strong October hurricanes in the Northeast dating back to the early 19th century.
Additionally, although much work has been done on compiling an accurate historical hurricane record, the improvement in observational technology means we will never be absolutely certain about the exact intensity of storms in much earlier decades. Maybe years or decades down the road with a longer, more robust record, we might be able to link Hurricane Matthew and climate change, but that day is not today.
History aside, the biggest downside to linking individual extreme weather events and climate change is the fuel it gives to the climate change skeptics. Yes, they are still out there.
When climate change deniers see claims that Hurricane Matthew is caused by climate change, they see the opportunity to use a nor'easter in the northeast US that produces two feet of snow, or a blizzard over the Great Plains, to proclaim that, "Hey, it's snowing! Global warming isn't a thing!" Then, instead of having a productive discussion about addressing severe weather events and its impacts, we circle back to the same counterproductive discussion of "debating," whether climate change is even occurring.
So while we ask those who question climate change to look at all the evidence and facts when taking a position on the issue, it’s just as important that those on the other side of the argument hold ourselves to the same standard.
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change, Disaster risk, Floods/storms
Location: Charleston, SC, United States