Invincible Ida: hazardous hurricanes in a world of climate change

by Sudeepthi Ravipati (’24) | October 11, 2021

Hurricane Ida’s wrath has struck from Louisiana to New York; since August 26, the storm has brought torrential rain and 150 mile-per-hour wind speeds. In American history, only four other hurricanes have had stronger wind speeds. Ida’s damage to cities is more expansive, however, than past hurricanes. “This is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to get used to as the planet warms,” warns Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Hurricane Ida sets a frightening precedent for future storms, particularly because of its roots in climate change. The shifting climate is causing increasingly more damage, according to a recent report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Hurricanes in the next few years could result in alarmingly more destruction than typically experienced in the aftermath of tropical storms.

“Three key ingredients are needed for a hurricane to form: warm sea surface water that’s at least about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.5 degrees Celsius), a thick layer of moisture extending from the sea surface to roughly 20,000 feet, and minimal vertical wind shear so the thunderstorm can grow vertically without interruption,” University of Florida meteorologist Athena Masson explained. 

Hurricane Ida had all of these aspects and more. During Ida, the ocean was about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees Celsius), similar to the temperature of bathtub water and a few degrees hotter than average, according to measurements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition, the ocean temperature has risen at an average rate of approximately 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit (0.08 degrees Celsius) per year between 1901 and 2020. This heat acts as fuel, similar to how cars use gas. Storms take this fuel from the ocean to generate faster wind speeds and more intense storm surges. As Ida approached the coast, it traveled across the hottest parts of the gulf. With no atmospheric winds to hinder its growth, the hurricane’s center spun faster and faster. For every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) that air heats up, seven percent more moisture can be held, leading to greater precipitation during storms.

Within twenty-four hours, Hurricane Ida evolved from an unnamed tropical depression into a Category 4 hurricane. The downpour of rain enormously impacted a variety of areas. In New York, a flash-flood alert was issued for the first time in its history. Many bustling cities had to close businesses and cancel events. In the South, cotton crops took the brunt of agricultural damage, and storage grain elevators containing soybeans and corn were also destroyed. 

Climate change will continue to increase the threat of hurricanes for years to come. To counter these risks, additional measures such as stronger infrastructure and reliable disaster preparation should be considered. Coastal communities across the world must learn to adapt to increased rainfall as our oceans continue to warm up.

Categories: Science

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