Hurricane Harvey and the storms to come

Elizabeth Kolbert writes: On August 29, 2005, at six-ten in the morning, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the border of Mississippi and Louisiana, just east of New Orleans. Katrina had spent days wobbling over the Gulf of Mexico, and by the time it reached the coast it was classified as a strong Category 3 storm. As it pressed inland, its winds, which were clocked at up to a hundred and twenty-five miles an hour, pushed water from the Gulf westward into Lake Pontchartrain, and north, up a mostly abandoned shipping canal. The levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans failed, and low-lying neighborhoods were inundated. That day in Louisiana, at least six hundred and fifty people died.

Katrina was widely described as a “wake-up call” for a country in denial about climate change. President George W. Bush and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, during their first term, had withdrawn the United States from a global climate agreement and dismissed the findings of the government’s own climate scientists. Now, a few months into their second term, the nation was facing just the sort of disaster that the scientists had warned about. Even if global warming hadn’t caused Katrina, clearly it had intensified the damage: with higher sea levels come higher storm surges. And, with sea surface temperatures rising, there was more energy to fuel hurricanes, and more evaporation, which inevitably produces more rain. “How many killer hurricanes will it take before America gets serious about global warming?” the journalist Mark Hertsgaard asked at the time.

Last week, as Hurricane Harvey lingered over Houston, dumping so much water on the city that the National Weather Service struggled to find ways to describe the deluge, this question sloshed back to mind. Again, climate change can’t be said to have caused Harvey, but it unquestionably made the storm more destructive. When Harvey passed over the western part of the Gulf, the surface waters in the region were as much as seven degrees warmer than the long-term average. “The Atlantic was primed for an event like this,” Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told the Guardian.

Harvey was less lethal than Katrina; as of this writing, forty-six storm-related deaths have been confirmed. But in financial terms the storm’s costs are likely to be as high or even higher. One estimate put the price of repairing homes, roads, businesses, and the petrochemical plants that line the Houston Ship Channel at a hundred and ninety billion dollars. And that estimate was made before storm-damaged plants started to explode.

As misguided as the Bush Administration was about climate change, Donald Trump has taken willful ignorance to a whole new level. [Continue reading…]

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