Massive Hurricane Irma is barrelling toward the U.S. as one of the strongest storms ever recorded. Meanwhile, Texans continue to clean up from Hurricane Harvey’s path of destruction. Some researchers say the catastrophic storms are a preview of climate change, while emergency officials are warning: the events should be a wake-up call for everyone to be prepared.
“This is what could be considered a typical event under climate change scenarios that we have talked about for 30 years in our community,” said Art Miller, head of the Oceans and Atmosphere Section at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“These types of climate events are going to become more extreme. And this is definitely an extreme event,” he said.
Hurricane Harvey's five-day deluge broke the continental U.S. rainfall total for a single event, killing dozens, putting entire neighborhoods under water and destroying thousands of structures. Irma is following a similar path of destruction.
Warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures are fueling the massive storm systems, Miller said.
“That causes more evaporation of moisture into a given hurricane, and once the moisture is in the hurricane that’s what drives the circulation and makes the winds stronger,” Miller explained. “Once the winds get stronger, that basically pumps up more moisture from the ocean which then eventually leads to more rain.”
Hurricane Harvey developed in 85-degree waters in the Gulf of Mexico — approximately 5 degrees warmer than normal, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Some regions in the Atlantic are up 1 to 2 degrees. The above-average temperatures are blamed, in part, to weak prevailing winds and natural variability.
According to a draft of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Climate Science Special Report released in June, sea surface temperatures have been consistently higher during the past three decades than at any other time since records began in the late 1800s.
Ocean warming is expected to continue as it absorbs the atmosphere’s increased heat from greenhouse gas emissions.
“If you think about that the earth will warm by a degree centigrade or two degrees centigrade over the next 50 years or so, that doesn’t seem like very much, but when it comes to making the ocean warmer and fueling these types of extreme events, that’s the kind of thing that has a visible impact, a tragic impact of a lot of people,” Miller said.
The scenes of the hurricanes striking powerful blows and forcing thousands to flee for their lives provides a stark reminder for people everywhere to be prepared for all types of natural disasters, including fires and earthquakes.
“It really drives home that there are just not enough police, fire, emergency medical services to take care of every person in a catastrophic event,” said Holly Crawford, director of San Diego County’s Office of Emergency Services.
“You should always have whatever you will need to be self-sufficient for at least three days,” Crawford said.
These are the basic supplies the Red Cross recommends that peoople should have in case of an emergency or disaster:
Water (one gallon per person, per day)
Food (non-perishable, easy-to-prepare items)
Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
First aid kit
Medications and medical items
Sanitation and personal hygiene items
Copies of personal documents (medication list and medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies)
Cell phone with chargers (and backup charging supplies)
Family and emergency contact information
SIGN UP FOR EMERGENCY ALERTS: Register your cellphone with AlertSanDiego to receive emergency information from the county. Alerts include evacuation orders and shelter locations.
Although San Diego does not typically get hit by hurricanes, called typhoons in the Pacific, the region is susceptible to many other disasters that could have similar devastating impacts, including earthquakes, wind-drive fire storms and flooding.
“We have a major fault that runs right through downtown San Diego, the Rose Canyon fault,” Crawford said. “We have numerous other faults throughout San Diego County. If you live along the coast you should know if you live along a tsunami inundation zone.”
Crawford oversees emergency response when disasters strike, from a command center in Kearny Mesa. The center has been activated during several major fires, with more than 150 emergency officials and city and county leaders coordinating efforts to keep the public safe.
“In 2007, 12 to 13 percent of our county’s total land mass burned. We had 515,000 people evacuated. We sheltered more than 20,000 people,” Crawford said. “Those are huge numbers.”
Walls of flames driven by hurricane-strength winds roared through neighborhoods in October 2007. The fires scorched 1,600 homes and 576 square miles of the county. Ten people died.
Lessons learned from previous disasters have increased the county’s preparedness and capabilities, Crawford said. But climate change is expected to add a whole new dimension.
“Climate change will impact the duration, the frequency, the magnitude and the location of all of the hazards, really that we face here in San Diego County,” Crawford said. “But primarily temperature, precipitation and sea level rise.”
The warmest years on record for the globe have been broken 16 of the last 17 years, and the impacts are evident, said Miller.
“We have a clear, undeniable, indisputable imprint of global warming on the global climate system,” Miller said. “It’s going to keep getting warmer, and we’re going to have to face up to the impacts of global warming.”
Miller hopes the devastation from the hurricanes will motivate people into action.
“We want to try to make our planet habitable for everyone and protect our planet and take care of it,” Miller said. “And make sure that things don’t get so off-kilter that we end up with a place that’s really difficult to live for a lot of people.”