America’s East Coast is no stranger to freak extreme weather events that would seem extreme in milder climates such as New Zealand. Unlike its western neighbour, the East Coast is closer to where tropical hurricanes form, moving down towards the northwest along a warm temperature current. This current is decided by the water temperatures along the Gulf Stream, where the warm water helps sustain the hurricane in its path of destruction.
This fits the pattern of all hurricanes that use the rising heat to create an area of low pressure, forcing the air around them to cool and form clouds in the process. Add to that the large areas of sparse, flat land in America, and you have the perfect concoction for a hurricane.
The problem, however, is not that hurricanes happen at all but that they’re increasing tremendously in strength. Brought on by the increase in global temperature, a hurricane will form in the warmer months near the tropical clime and head southwest, breaking along the coast. But when sea temperatures rise, as we’ve been experiencing over the last few decades, the hurricane builds greater air pressure, resulting in a freak hurricane which can cause tsunamis and travel greater inland, with more size and momentum.
This is exactly what we’ve seen in the wake of the most recent East Coast event, Hurricane Ian.
On the 28th of September, a category 4 hurricane (just below a category 5, the most devastating hurricane possible) broke over the southwest coast of Cayo Costa. Winds of 150mph were generated near the coast, resulting in tumultuous winds whose effect could be felt in Cuba, which experienced power outages and devastation to crops.
Ian first made landfall at Cayo Coast around 3 PM, making a second landfall an hour later along Pirate Harbor, where sustained winds were still as high as 145mph. Over six feet of storm surge was measured, topping the last surge in the last half a century. The water itself quickly overtook neighbouring houses along the coast in a surge that left many homes underwater and 2 million homes and businesses without power. A mandatory curfew along Florida’s coast was issued to prevent an influx of losses.
By late on the 30th, winds had finally decreased to around 85mph, lessening the next day to around 65mph, moving from category 4 to category 1. As of the time of writing this report, 19 people have been recorded as dead, although search and rescue operations are still very much underway. The most pessimistic report states that hundreds may be dead or missing. As of the 29th, however, Fort Myers has been undergoing evacuation procedures to relocate its trapped residents. UPDATE: the National Hurricane Centre has since report 89 deaths, higher, putting Ian as the worst hurricane since 1935.
The real danger with events like these is the untold structural damages, which makes returning to the damaged area an ongoing hazard. While power remains out and hundreds of houses along the coast are damaged, the possibility that water supplies may be breached poses ongoing risks for Flordia’s residents. One report from CNN states that around “90% of the island is pretty gone”*
The devastation has left many furious over the lack of preventative measures in place, including early warning systems and sandbanks to break the incoming tide. However, the sudden nature of Hurricane Ian left little time for any significant action to be put in place. Joe Biden has currently ordered federal assistance to help with emergency conditions, which authorises the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate a relief mission for 46 of South Carolina’s counties, along Florida all the way to Virginia. This action will hopefully prevent further tragedy over the next few days.
However, as advanced as our instruments or beach barriers become, the aggressive nature of hurricanes cannot be prevented by reactive measures alone. Instruments and barriers do little to prevent the rise in global temperatures and the increase in precipitation from the melting of the ice caps. This in turn results in a moisture barrier, trapping more heat, which leads to hotter summers and wetter weather.
In short, the more carbon we trap in the environment, the more it warms up, causing more moisture and more weather. Previous natural phenomenon like hurricanes increase in intensity until they become far more dangerous. The same applies to dry summers, as China has been experiencing, and terrific downpours, as with Pakistan. If you haven’t already, we recommend checking out our recent blog; “Extreme Weather Events Devastate Globe as Climate Change Worsens” for more information.
The only way for these events to decrease in intensity is if countries around the globe can commit to their carbon neutral plans in the next decade, a move which would stabilise, and eventually decrease, the global temperature. Such a move comes too late for many marine lifeforms and coral reefs, which hold an estimated 25% of all marine life. When these are gone, the biodiversity of life collapses and our oceans suffer. Check out our article; "The Ocean's Day's are Numbered" for more insights into the impact of climate change on our beautiful oceans.
But, if only for ourselves, and our traditionally coastal-based cities, changes need to happen. The pressure is on to achieve carbon neutrality around the globe, least these freak weather events change the habitability of much of the world’s landscape.
For more information, see the current research coming out of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory; https://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/global-warming-and-hurricanes/.
- Abrams, Abigail. “What Do Hurricane Categories Actually Mean?” on Time. Date Updated: 28th August, 2019. Site Link: https://time.com/4946730/hurricane-categories/.
- “Hurricane Ian makes landfall in Florida” on nbc news. Date Updated: 29th September, 2022. Site Link: https://nbcnews.to/3C5FV3A.
- Musto, Julia, Richard, Lawrence, Bradford, Betz. “Ian strengthens to hurricane again after pummeling Florida, now headed for Carolinas, Georgia” on Fox News. Date Updated: 30th September, 2022. Site Link: https://fxn.ws/3E7Lwsx.
- Reals, Tucker, Lynch, Baldwin, Dakss, Brain, Reardon, Sophie. “Ian moves across Florida as a tropical storm after slamming coast as a Category 4 hurricane” on CBS News. Date Published: 29th September, 2022.
- “Why do hurricanes hit the East Coast of the U.S. but never the West Coast?” on Scientific American. Date Published: 21st October, 1999. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3Sueg3c.
- Wolfe, Elizabeth, Caldwell, Travis, McCleary, Kelly, Sangal, Aditi, Vogt, Adrienne, Chowdhury, Maureen, Hammond, Elise, Federico O’Murchú, Seán. “September 29, 2022 Hurricane Ian updates” on CNN. Date Updated: 30th September, 2022. Site Link: https://cnn.it/3y5YsLN.
About the author - meet Earthan James McCulloch
James is a literary student and environmental enthusiast who likes thinking about the better futures we could have (and those we best avoid). When not playing with other people’s dogs or taking long, mindful walks, he’s usually found reading and writing, often at the local library. You can check him out on his blog for something a little different, where he talks about all things literary or otherwise.