As the human and commercial toll of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath continue to mount, with some water levels expected to pass the 50-inch mark by midweek, it becomes ever harder to deny the impact of global warming on the world’s climate.
Harvey, which made landfall along the Texas Gulf coast over the weekend, forcing some 30,000 people into shelters and shutting down a string of oil refineries, has been deemed the worse storm to hit the United States in over a decade.
But while the peripheral effects of Harvey are being felt as far south as Mexico City and as far north as Washington, D.C., it is worth remembering that the unprecedented hurricane is not the only tropical storm to ravish the world in the last week.
Just a few days before Harvey hit Texas, Typhoon Hato struck Hong Kong and south China, wreaking millions of dollars’ worth of destruction and leaving at least 12 dead in its path.
Hurricanes and cyclones are nothing new, and have been creating natural disasters since time immortal.
But the sheer force and intensity of these two storms is clear evidence of how global warming is playing havoc on the world’s climate.
Moreover, the frequency with which such storms are occurring is on the rise.
In the Atlantic Basin the number of tropical storms over the past century has nearly doubled, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
The exact impact climate change might have played in that increase is hard to define since there are a number of other factors that could have contributed to cyclical variations, including high sea surface temperatures and wind movements.
But what is certain is that the world is getting hotter, icebergs are melting, and oceanic water levels are on the rise.
These human-caused changes in the earth’s surface are producing storms that hit harder and last longer than those of a century ago.
And while we may have the technology today to better track tropical storms and dispatch warnings to lessen the death count, at the end of the day, we are still at the mercy of climate.
Harvey’s most detrimental effect is expected to be the direct result of its unprecedented intense and prolonged rainfall, leading to citywide flooding across Houston.
Environmentalists and climatologists have warned that as the earth’s atmosphere gets warmer, clouds hold more humidity and release higher levels of rain (about 7 percent more for every degree of Celsius the temperature rises).
Wetter skies translate into heavier rains, which, in turn, translate into increased flooding.
The situation is complicated even further by urban sprawl, which covers land with cement and blocks the earth’s natural reabsorption of rainwater.
That old Chicken Little warning that “the sky is falling” is becoming less and less far-fetched as we witness natural disaster after natural disaster and do nothing to stop the lingering storm.
But unlike Chicken Little, climate change is not a fairytale.
It is real, and we are already paying the brutal consequences of denying it.
Just ask the people in Houston.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]