Why Storms Like Harvey Could Become the New Normal
The nation watched in shock and horror this weekend as Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, unleashing catastrophic flooding across Houston and the state. Tragically, the storm has already taken multiple lives, displaced thousands from their homes, and will likely take a major economic toll not only on the state’s economy but on millions of its residents.
Right now, we must focus on helping those in need. But as we look to the future, one thing is clear: If we hope to avert an increasing number of future disasters of this magnitude, it’s time for policymakers to act to address the climate crisis.
The climate crisis did not directly cause Harvey, but it was a much stronger, more destructive storm because of how burning fossil fuels has altered our planet.
We’ve heard a common refrain over and over in news coverage of Harvey: This is an extreme weather event we’ve never seen the likes of before. Or as the National Weather Service put it: “This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced.”
Make no mistake: This is the climate crisis in action, and without taking substantive steps to shift away from the dirty fossil fuels driving it, we’re likely to see storms like Harvey more often in our lifetimes.
Science can explain how the changing climate contributed to the perfect storm of conditions that paved the way for Harvey. Carbon pollution from oil, coal, and gas warms not only the planet, but also the atmosphere. A warmer atmosphere can store more water vapor, which in turn yields heavier rainfall—like the 50 inches of rain Harvey is expected to bring brought to some areas of Texas.
Hurricanes also feed off warming waters, and Harvey’s upgrade late last week from a tropical depression to a Category 4 hurricane was likely due in large part to unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf were between 2–7 degrees above long-term averages, giving Harvey the energy and moisture to become stronger and more deadly.
And partly because of global sea level rise, sea levels along Texas’s coastline have risen 9–13 inches since the mid-20th century. While that may not seem like much, higher seas contribute to more severe storm surge, causing significant damage further inland than it otherwise would. As sea levels along the coast of Texas continue to rise, with projections showing potential increases of up to over two feet by 2050, the risk of higher storm surge and catastrophic flooding will only continue to rise with them.
And if the settled science of the climate crisis isn’t enough to convince you that we need to act, I encourage you to think about the very real consequences of a storm of this magnitude. Think about the lives tragically lost and the vulnerable nursing home residents sitting in waist-deep water waiting to be rescued. Think of the homes full of priceless family memories lost and the thousands now crowded into shelters. The climate crisis can often seem like an abstract problem, but this weekend was a clear and visceral wake-up call.
So, is there hope? Yes. The practical clean energy solutions we need are becoming more affordable and accessible every year. Plus, the overwhelming majority of Americans know the crisis is real and that we must act. It’s only a matter of time before our leaders listen and follow.
Ken Berlin is president and CEO of The Climate Reality Project.