As Hurricane Ian barreled toward the central Florida gulf coast this morning before making landfall as a Category 4 storm, the conservative media-sphere was having a field day at the expense of CNN anchor Don Lemon.
On his program Tuesday night, Lemon had asked NOAA National Hurricane Center acting director Jamie Rhome about the effect climate change was having on the approaching storm. Rhome said he wanted to talk about the current situation facing Florida and that he would talk about climate change at a later time. Lemon tried again, asking about the link between climate change and increasingly intense hurricanes.
“I don’t think you can link climate change to any one event,” Rhome responded. “On the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse, but to link it to any one event, I would caution against that.”
In taunting headlines that followed, conservative media outlets framed the comments as a clapback against what they continue to portray as climate alarmism on the part of mainstream news outlets. Fox News wrote that Rhome had “shut down” Lemon on climate change. The U.K.’s Daily Mail wrote that he had been “schooled AGAIN [sic].” When contacted for comment, the National Hurricane Center flatly refuted any implication that Rhome meant to downplay how climate change is making hurricanes like Ian more dangerous, saying only that his immediate focus had been on talking about the storm’s approaching impacts—where rain, wind, and flooding will hit, and how bad it will be.
“The acting NHC director clearly stated that ‘on the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse.’ That is supported by the overwhelmingly clear science on what climate change means for storms like Ian in general: heavier rainfall, possible slower movement which prolongs heavy rain and battering winds, and more inundation as sea levels rise,” the Hurricane Center’s public affairs officer Maria Torres wrote in an email to TIME. “Researchers will analyze Ian afterwards to see what impact climate change may have had on this specific storm.”
The science is well-known. Higher average temperatures lead to warmer ocean waters which in turn causes more evaporation. As hurricanes pass over, they absorb more moisture, leading to heavier rainfall. Warmer waters linked to climate change also increase the storms’ wind speed, and can cause hurricanes to undergo so-called “rapid intensification” more often. In less than a day, between Monday and Tuesday, Hurricane Ian became 67% stronger; the stretch of water the storm traveled over was a full 1°C warmer than average, largely due to climate change. Rising sea levels also multiply the flooding danger from what is often the deadliest aspect of a hurricane: storm surge, helping to push flooding further inland.
The kerfuffle over Lemon’s news segment, however, points to a significant question within the meteorological community: namely, how and when to talk about climate change in discussing ongoing weather phenomenon.
For climate deniers, the answer is exactly never. Rhome, of course, likely wouldn’t hold that position, but his comments on CNN did motion towards something of an old view, that weather is weather and climate is climate. Up until recently, local meteorologists either weren’t much interested in talking about climate change, or assumed the public was more concerned about finding out if it was shorts or sweater weather than hearing about how the trends were changing over time. Climate scientists, meanwhile, talked about global heating almost exclusively in terms of long-term trends, but steered clear of talking about how warming temperatures were affecting individual events.
But these days, more and more weather forecasters are making discussion of climate change part of their daily newscasts. For instance, The Weather Company, which operates The Weather Channel, signed an agreement in May with Climate Central to provide climate analysis to the hundreds of local news organizations that use their forecasting tools as part of their daily broadcasts. Part of that has to do with the climate effects we’re experiencing: as the atmosphere continues to warm, meteorologists are more likely to want to explain why formerly anomalous events keep happening more and more often. And the state of climate science is also changing.
Over the past two decades, Rhome’s view that climate change can’t be connected “to any one event” has become less relevant, with climate scientists developing methods to determine how warmer temperatures caused by human emissions are affecting extreme weather events. They do this by running counterfactual analyses with climate models to see how likely it would be for such events to occur absent human-caused emissions.
Some such analyses are simpler than others, and finding a climate change fingerprint on hurricanes is a more complicated task than attributing, say, a heatwave to greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s not a long connection between a warming of the planet, and a local warming of say the western United States,” Princeton University geosciences professor Gabriel Vecchi told TIME last year. “For other extreme events, it’s still a little more complicated to find connections.”
But it can be done. This spring, for instance, scientists from Imperial College London and Oxford University published findings determining that extreme rainfall during Japan’s Typhoon Hagibis, which hit the area around Tokyo in Oct. 2019, was made about 67% more likely by human caused climate change, resulting in about $4 billion of additional damages.
Those analyses can take a long time, though scientists are trying their best to speed up the process. One group of scientists formed a group called the World Weather Attribution Initiative, which conducts intense, multi-timezone scientific sprints to analyze extreme weather events for signs that they were connected to climate change.
Part of the reason for doing those rapid analyses is the same one that compelled Lemon to bring up climate change as Ian, expected to be one of the costliest storms in U.S. history, approached the Florida coast. People often think of climate change as a distant problem, which is part of the reason for a continuing lack of political will to make the necessary emissions cuts to avert catastrophic effects in the decades to come. But extreme weather events offer moments to show that climate change is happening here and now, and to point out what our future will look like, at a moment when people are actually paying attention.
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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org