Hurricanes and climate change: What the science says

Cayman has built back stronger after Hurricane Ivan but climate change could make us more vulnerable to severe storms.
Cayman has built back stronger after Hurricane Ivan but climate change could make us more vulnerable to severe storms.

One of the primary concerns for Cayman Islands residents when it comes to climate change, is what impact the phenomenon will have on hurricanes.

Storm season is already a threat to the islands, but how will rising seas and warming oceans alter that threat?

We reviewed some of the recent studies and comments from scientists and governing bodies to find out.

Is climate change likely to cause more hurricanes?

Scientists are still unravelling the links between global warming and storms and this is far from settled science.

The prevailing theory is that climate change will not increase the number of storms but is likely to increase the intensity of storms.

Kristiane Huber, resilience fellow from 2017-2020 at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in the US, told the Cayman Compass recently, “The fact is that warmer waters really supercharge hurricanes and a warmer atmosphere is able to hold more moisture, which means more rain.”

While storms will not necessarily become more frequent as sea temperatures rise, they could become stronger, slower and wetter.

What do the governing bodies say?

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that increased incidence of Category 3 and stronger storms would be a likely outcome of climate change.

A US government summary of recent research on global warming and hurricanes also noted, “The global proportion of tropical cyclones that reach very intense (Category 4 and 5) levels will likely increase due to anthropogenic warming over the 21st century.”

In Cayman, National Weather Service and Hazard Management Cayman Islands officials told the Compass, “the likelihood of a Category 5 hurricane or higher intensity storm impacting the Cayman Islands is increasing”.

What about storm surge and flooding?

Sea-level increase is expected to exacerbate the secondary impacts of hurricanes, particularly storm surge and flooding.

Even without stronger hurricanes, rising seas will mean more homes and buildings are in high-risk zones.

A 2017 paper on climate change and coastal development projected that the number of people facing substantial expected damage from storms would increase eight-fold in the US over the next 60 years.

The authors attributed this primarily to sea-level rise putting more property at risk.

What are we doing about it?

Premier Alden McLaughlin told the Compass in an interview after Hurricane Dorian that there was “little doubt” that climate change was contributing to stronger cyclones.

He said Cayman had built back stronger after Hurricane Ivan and was better positioned to withstand the impact of a major storm.

Hazard Management officials said some of the steps taken since Ivan to improve Cayman’s resilience include changes to planning regulations to ensure critical buildings are constructed to withstand winds of 150 miles per hour.

Vital road infrastructure has also received greater protection through the building of sea walls and the increased elevation of new roads.

Shelter availability and training for volunteers have improved, but space remains an issue.


Issues: Climate Change

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