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Global Warming Strengthens Hurricanes

By Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel

27 October, 2005

Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma made clear to the public there is a link between global warming and the power -- not frequency -- of hurricanes. Warm water in the Gulf of Mexico helped transform three mild tropical storms into the most powerful category of hurricanes possible. Hurricane Wilma was classified as the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin and was the third Category 5 hurricane this season.

It is impossible to blame any one weather event -- be it a hurricane or a heat wave or a blizzard -- on global warming. That is because weather is not climate. Climate represents average conditions over multiple seasons or decades. A longer perspective is essential to see climate shifts above the natural variation.

Recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that a combined measure of duration and intensity of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean has doubled over the last 30 years. Similarly, a Georgia Tech study this summer showed that the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has increased in the last 30 years, while the number of Category 1, 2, and 3 storms has decreased. These trends correspond to increases in average ocean surface temperatures over the same period. This is not surprising, since warm oceans fuel hurricanes just as gasoline fuels a fire.

Climate scientists around the world are certain that rising ocean temperatures are in large part a result of global warming. Most of the strongest hurricanes on record have occurred during the past 15 years, when ocean surface temperatures climbed to record levels.

The bottom line is that global warming is creating more intense hurricanes.

Burning fossil fuels in cars and power plants releases carbon dioxide that blankets the Earth and traps heat. Oceans cover the majority of the Earth's surface, and they absorb most of this excess heat. Temperatures have already risen dramatically in recent decades, and because carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for a hundred or more years, temperatures will only continue to increase.

This is a serious problem.

A warmer planet means more droughts and extreme heat events, which threaten air quality and human health. Rising sea levels are already affecting citizens living on the coasts.

If the federal government continues to ignore global warming, hurricane damage likely will escalate.

In 2004, hurricanes caused more than $45 billion in damages. The cost of Katrina and Rita alone will surpass that. To protect the lives of coastal residents and reduce property damage, we need to restore and protect wetlands and barrier islands and, most of all, start to curb global warming today.

The United States should take the lead by investing in clean homegrown renewable energy that will save us money, open up new industries, and create jobs at home. With only 4 percent of the world's population, the United States emits 25 percent of the world's global warming pollution. With so many cost-effective solutions at hand -- cleaner cars, renewable energy, and energy-efficient appliances -- it is irresponsible to postpone action in the hopes that some unproven technology of the future will be enough to solve the problem.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration's failure to move forward with solutions is discouraging U.S. companies from producing and selling the most efficient cars and trucks, appliances, and renewable energy systems here and abroad. Toyota is currently the lead driver in the hybrid market, with the Big Three trying to catch up.

For economic and environmental reasons, and above all to save human lives, we must take action to reduce heat-trapping emissions.

Too much is at stake to ignore the warning signs of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

Brenda Ekwurzel, PhD. is a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). She has done climate research at the University of Arizona, Columbia University and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. UCS is an independent nonprofit alliance of 50,000 concerned citizens and scientists across the country. UCS augments rigorous scientific analysis with innovative thinking and committed citizen advocacy to build a cleaner, healthier environment and a safer world.











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