No, It's Not Too Soon
Some people who are yet to be convinced of a warming climate have another thing in common: After every natural disaster, they’ll either say: “There is no evidence that _______ was influenced by climate change," or many who describe themselves as “Luke warmers” often say: "It’s too early to tell if climate change had any impact on ______”.
Well, at some point we have to acknowledge that it is NOT too soon to talk about this stuff. And it is not too soon to show concern how climate change may be already helping to make “natural” disasters more disastrous. Matthew is likely one of those examples, and we don’t have to wait months or years before research gives us more quantitative evidence. Those who say it’s “too soon” now are not likely to believe later studies anyway. So, why not talk about it while the storm is still fresh in our minds?
However, as a TV meteorologist, I feel it was too soon to discuss the climate change link during the storm. The priority for us should always be the current situation and dangers in the coming days. There may be some stations or networks that have the extra time to talk about such a complex subject. But most of us sure don’t. We’re already trying to squeeze ten minutes of information into a three minute weathercast. Any talk about the climate change connection means that we have to skip other, more immediate concerns. It’s a different story after the storm, though.
But Don't Go Too Far: Climate Change Didn't Do It All
With a subject as politically sensitive as climate change, we need to be careful about how far we go with the headlines. For example, an article from grist.org under the sub-heading “October hurricanes aren’t supposed to be this scary” was reprinted on slate.com. Their title was: “Climate Change Likely Made Hurricane Matthew Worse”. The word “likely” made it a responsible and accurate headline according to the prevailing science of climate change. But the Facebook and Twitter headlines for the same article were: “Yes, Climate Change is Likely to Blame for Deadly Hurricane Matthew.” That headline was neither responsible nor accurate. Again, this was the same article from the same media organization!
Does this really matter? Yes it does. Why do you think 97% of the climate scientists who publish most agree on the climate change consensus, yet a much lower percentage of the general public does? Part of the reason is that “the other side” uses exaggerations and extreme forecasts that don’t pan out as ammunition. Every wild exaggeration and wild, unsubstantiated forecast hurts the credibility for all. No, the Arctic isn’t going to be ice-free in 5 years, Miami is not going to be under water in 10 years, and the record hurricane activity of 2004 and 2005 is not going to be considered “normal” any time soon. I grimace every time I see one of those headlines. Many people mean well, but end up hurting the understanding and acceptance of climate science.
Climate change isn’t to blame for the existence of Matthew. In case you haven’t heard, there have been hurricanes for hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions of years. And climate change didn’t make Matthew deadly. It could have formed and tracked over the same areas and caused deaths, even if it had occurred in 1816 instead of 2016. But is surely could have made Matthew stronger and deadlier.
So, Slate, please watch your headlines. The article itself was mostly reasonable, as you’ll see.
"Nature on Steroids:" Extra Fuel For Matthew
This isn’t rocket science. An open-minded 5th grader can understand that if:
A. Hurricanes are fueled by warm oceans
B. Warmer oceans help make hurricanes stronger.
Who is going to argue with that? No reasonable person can.
A. More rain falls when nearby oceans are warmer
B. Warmer oceans help lead to more rain from hurricanes
Here is the evidence that these changes are already happening. It’s not just a theory about the future:
Average Global Sea Surface Temperature, 1880–2015
Extreme One-Day Precipitation Events in the Contiguous 48 States, 1910–2015
Yes, ocean temperatures have been going up for decades. And there are more times when extreme rain falls.
There’s a specific way to measure the amount of moisture in the air ahead of a storm. It’s called “precipitable water”. And yes, records were set for the highest amount ever recorded in Jacksonville, FL and Charleston, SC. We’ve seen similar records ahead of numerous floods in recent years. (Records have even been set in winter ahead of big snowstorms.)
So, is it a coincidence that parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina set all-time records for storm surge heights, rainfall, and river levels? Remember, Matthew was only a Category 1 hurricane when it finally made landfall in South Carolina. It didn’t stall. It simply dumped more rain than any other tropical or non-tropical system on record.
How was Matthew affected by climate change? Here are the “not yet proved” assumptions:
1. Strengthened 80 mph in just 24 hours-3rd fastest on record in Atlantic (behind only Wilma (2005) and Felix (2007)
2. Stayed Category 4 or 5 for 102 hours-longest stretch in Atlantic in October (ocean not as warm in October, so these storms can stay strong later in the season)
3. Extra warm ocean strengthened it and kept it strong longer
4. Stronger storm for longer time led to record high storm surges
5. Extra precipitable water led to record rainfall, which then led to record flooding
None of the above would have been as likely if greenhouse gases hadn’t increased so much in past decades.
Here’s a great article with an amazing cartoon video explaining the “weather on steroids” concept-from one of the top weather research centers in the world.