Hurricanes Are Moving Further Inland as Climate Warms

 

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

New research shows that hurricanes are retaining more of their strength after hitting land than they have previously. Hurricanes were once expected to quickly weaken after landfall, but over the past 50 years, the time it takes for hurricanes to dissipate on land has almost doubled

Researchers say that the increased endurance is caused by warming global temperatures and that the trend could prove disastrous for inland communities that once saw themselves safe from hurricanes.

Why This Matters: Hurricanes are getting stronger as the earth warms. This year, the North Atlantic broke the named storm record with 29 storms. During the 2020 Hurricane season, ocean surface temperatures in common storm development regions like the Gulf of Mexico ranged from 1-3 degrees Celsius higher than average

Floodplains are already expanding, putting more homes and communities at risk. If swift action isn’t taken, communities even further inland than Houston will begin to see unprecedented hurricane damage.

A Sign of the Times: Researchers found that in the 1960s, hurricanes normally lost 75% of their strength within one day of making landfall. 

Researchers point to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Zeta as prime examples of this trend. 

  • In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hovered over Houston for days, dumping 127 billion tons of water on the city, one of the largest precipitation events in recorded history. 
  • Hurricane Zeta, which made landfall hundreds of miles south of the Gulf Coast, was still producing 50 mph winds when it reached New Jersey a day later and left millions of people without power from Louisiana to North Carolina.

Pinaki Chakraborty, a professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology and a co-author of the study, predicts that cities like Atlanta, which previously only experienced the weaker remnants of hurricanes, could begin to experience their full force in the near future.

Say, for example, I’m in Atlanta at about 380 km (~236 miles) inland. Fifty years ago, I would have experienced something like a tropical storm from a hurricane that made landfall as a Category 3,” he said. “But now, I would experience a Category 1 hurricane, so there’s been a tremendous increase in the kind of destruction that can travel inland.” 

 

The Perfect Storm: In addition to allowing storms to move further inland, the sheer weight of storms’ water content is slowing them down. Hurricanes are taking longer to move through areas, giving them more time to cause flooding, damage infrastructure with high winds, and harm populations caught in the path. Researchers found that between 1949 and 2016, there was a 10% decrease in storm speed. Altogether, these trends increase the chance of inland flooding, which, according to NOAA, accounts for 25% of hurricane-related deaths each year. 

Researchers especially worry that inland communities don’t have the resources to prepare for storms on this scale, but Chakraborty warns that no level of preparedness can be a substitute for climate action. This slowdown in decay will continue unless there are really substantial measures taken to curb global warming,” He said. “These regions further inland that are not well-prepared for these storms — for good reason — may now have to get more prepared. But I don’t think we can really prepare our way out of this.”

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