No ordinary storm: The impact of climate change

13.6 million Olympic-sized swimming pools

If you are a millennial, you probably grew up watching natural disasters on 24-hour news stations, making Hurricane Harvey seem like an ordinary occurrence. However, was Hurricane Harvey out of the ordinary? Reports have shown the breadth of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, the storm leaving 300,000 people without electric and billions of dollars in property damage. Without being there however, it becomes hard to imagine how truly horrific this storm actually was. Unfortunately, by comparing Harvey to other natural disasters, we can see that this ordinary occurrence has become extraordinary.

The flooding that Texas residents saw from the storm were of extreme circumstances. Reports state some areas of Texas had as much as 50 inches of water. For an average sized person standing in the floodwaters, that water would be up to their chest.

The flooding seen in Texas can be attributed to Harvey downpouring an estimated 9 trillion gallons of rain in the Greater Houston/Southeast Texas region. To put that into perspective, that amount of rain could fill 13,627,485 Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

The flooding has been so extreme that, according to NPR, the National Weather Service had to add new colors in order to map the flooding in Texas. The only comparable Atlantic tropical storm goes back to 1978, when Tropical Storm Amelia left roughly 48 inches of standing water.

So why has Hurricane Harvey caused such extreme flooding in Texas? Scientific American points to Harvey remaining stagnant over Southeastern Texas for an extended amount of time. While a high-pressure system pushed Harvey in one direction, another high-pressure system moved in the opposite direction, resulting in Harvey stagnating over Southeastern Texas. Meteorologist Jeff Masters recalls only one similar circumstance in 1978, Hurricane Mitch.

Scientific American also notes how unusual this storm behaved. Normal hurricanes gain their strength by pulling moisture from the ocean. Once a hurricane hits land, it can no longer sustain itself and eventually loses momentum. However, with Harvey remaining stagnant “the flood area is so far and wide that it is acting like part of an ocean, feeding warm moisture up into Harvey,” according to Scientific American.

Namyoung Kang, deputy director of the National Typhoon Center in South Korea, and Florida State University geography professor Jim Elsner published a study in Nature Climate Change. Their research included records from 1880 until 2014. The findings indicated while there have been fewer hurricanes since 1984, there has been an increase in intensity by about 3 mph. This suggests that during warmer hurricane seasons, there will be fewer tropical storms but these storms will have higher intensities, compared to a cooler hurricane season which would likely see more hurricanes at the expense of intensity. The evidence seems to be clear that human-induced climate change is a contributor to the increase in disastrous storms in recent decades.  

An article published at Vox, has done a tremendous job in explaining the type of phenomenon we’re seeing after Hurricane Harvey. While it is important to understand the impact that climate change is having, we must still remember that climate change did not cause Hurricane Harvey. As said earlier, the oddity of two high pressure systems coming together caused much of the flooding that Greater Houston is experiencing. However, climate change seems to be making the probability of disastrous storms occurring much more likely.

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