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How climate change is making storms such as Hurricane Ian stronger


Hurricane Ian trapped people with high water. It flooded a fire station and tore the roof off a hospital, and it knocked out power for millions of people. Before making landfall in Florida, one of the strongest storms ever to hit the U.S. had winds that rapidly strengthened to nearly 150 miles an hour. On the other side of the world, another storm, Typhoon Noru, went from a Category 1 to a Category 5 in just 6 hours, before slamming into the Philippines. So how did Ian and Noru get so strong so fast? Gabriel Vecchi is a climate scientist at Princeton University, and he joins us this morning. Thanks so much for being here.

GABRIEL VECCHI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Can we say definitively that this fast-changing intensity that we saw with these storms in particular, but others as well, is an effect of climate change?

VECCHI: I think for these specific storms and for any specific storm, we're not going to be able to say definitively that global warming was the main cause. In fact, it's just going to be one of the factors that change the odds. But we are having growing confidence that global warming is changing the odds of hurricanes and typhoons undergoing rapid intensification, becoming monster storms overnight.

MARTIN: Can you explain those other factors? I mean, what is the science behind what makes these storms stronger?

VECCHI: Well, in order for a storm to get much stronger, you need to have fuel, and fuel comes in the form of warm ocean. But then you also need to have the weather and the winds in the atmosphere, the humidity, be in the right condition so that the storm itself can tap into that energy. So you need to have a combination of climate and other factors setting the table but also the weather playing along, unfortunately, to make these storms intensify.

MARTIN: What do you, as a climate scientist, learn? What data do you glean every time we see one of these really intense storms?

VECCHI: Well, each one of these storms allows us to have another probe into what used to be a really rare type of event. This rapid intensification that we're seeing more and more often was rare, so we didn't have many real-life samples. So every single one of these events really adds to our ability to see these events undergo and gives us a better ability not only to understand the climate context but also to test our forecast models.

MARTIN: And what does all that mean? I mean, when you end up testing forecast models, do you then draw observations and conclusions that ultimately end up being prescriptions for how to manage, deal or even prevent the damage that can come from these storms?

VECCHI: Well, I think as a society, we need to incorporate not only history but also our understanding of how hurricanes are likely to change over the coming century, and decades even, in order to really build a resilient society. If we want to have a future in which we are thriving, we need to have an accurate view of the intensification of hurricanes that is going to happen over the coming decades and also the rising sea level and the fact that these storms are going to be wetter and need to incorporate this into the way that we decide to place our cities, our infrastructure and invest in our forecast and observation techniques so that we can provide society with the best information, not just from a decade-to-decade time scale but also as storms like this are going to be on the water.

MARTIN: Do I hear you saying there's nothing in terms of a policy prescription that's going to make these storms less strong over time? It's about prevention of damage. It's about creating resiliency in our infrastructure. That's what we can really manage.

VECCHI: I think in the short term, we've already baked in a certain amount of warming and so a certain amount of hurricane impact. In the longer term, reducing our greenhouse gas impact is going to help us live in a less hostile environment. So it's a combination of adapting to the climate changes that are going to occur, as well as trying to reduce the climate changes.

MARTIN: Professor Gabriel Vecchi of Princeton University, we appreciate your time and perspective this morning. Thank you so much.

VECCHI: Oh, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.