Are Natural Disasters Intensified by Climate Change?

While we have been battling smoke and fires here on the west coast, equally damaging hurricanes have been pounding the east.    

These two seemingly opposite weather phenomena are escalated by climate change, according to a recent The Statesman Journal report. The article asks the question: “How could climate change worsen both the wildfire and hurricane seasons? Aren’t they ‘opposite’ weather phenomena?”  

It turns out, they’re not.    

University of Georgia atmospheric scientist J. Marshall Shepherd told the Statesman Journal, “We’ve always known that climate change would make extremes more extreme on all sides of the ledger. It’s counterintuitive to some people that global warming can amplify drought and heavy rain, but it’s simply physics.”   

Meteorologist Michael Mann, from Penn State University, agrees; wildfires and hurricanes are not actually opposites. As the planet continues to warm, the western U.S. as well as the Atlantic Ocean will also get warmer. This will contribute to the amplification of both wildfires and hurricanes, but that’s not all that’s involved.    

Mann told USA TODAY, “So when we happen to get a La Niña event, as this year, natural variability reinforces the impact that climate change is playing and we get dual disasters playing out in the U.S. as we are seeing right now.”   

La Niña is a climate pattern that is identified by cooler water in the central Pacific Ocean than normal. Forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the formation of La Niña last week   

Mann said the natural La Niña we are experiencing is having its own impact on natural disasters.    

“La Niña years tend to be associated with a Northern Hemisphere jet-stream pattern that favors both dry, warm conditions out West, and reduced vertical wind shear in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean,” Mann said. “The former favors wildfires out West, the latter favors hurricanes back east.”    

The topic of climate change was breached earlier this week at a briefing in Northern California between government officials and President Donald Trump. Trump asserted that forest management practices were to blame for the hundreds of blazes California has dealt with recently. California Gov. Gavin Newsom responded by saying that while forest management is an issue, climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this.   

With regard to hurricanes, scientists say that climate change is creating incredibly strong storms, with windspeeds in excess of 110 mph, as well as holding more moisture and causing record-level storm surges, like those seen in Pensacola, Florida on Wednesday, Sept. 16. The peak storm tide was the third-highest level on record at 5.6 feet.    

Being barely over halfway through the respective hurricane and fire seasons, there’s no telling the damage that these events will bring, but science is indicating that climate change isn’t helping things. 

By Kyra Young