Climate change is making the world's problems — like hurricanes — even worse

Climate change likely did not cause Hurricane Ian to form, and studies show that it also has not resulted in a greater number of global tropical cyclones than there were 150 years ago.

Numerous other studies, however, have established that rising temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels have made hurricanes wetter, windier, slower and able to ramp up quicker than in a pre-climate-change world.

Given those trends, it’s tempting to look at a historically bad storm like Ian and to blame its cause entirely on climate change. CNN anchor Don Lemon seemed to imply that in a Tuesday interview with Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center.

“What effect does climate change have on on this phenomenon that is happening now, because it seems these storms are intensifying? That’s the question,” Lemon said.

“I don’t think you can link climate change to any one event. On the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse. But to link it to any one event, I would caution against that,” Rhome responded.

Research shows that between 1979 and 2017, the number of major hurricanes (Category 3 or above) increased, while the number of less powerful storms declined. Were it not for the exponential rise in the damage from the more intense storms like Category 4 Ian, that finding might seem like a wash.

In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that, due to climate change, the public will see a continued rise in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the years to come. That, of course, is different from saying that each and every major hurricane that will form in the future should be attributed solely to climate change.

People survey the damage wrought by Hurricane Ian in Bonita Springs, Fla.
People survey the damage wrought by Hurricane Ian in Bonita Springs, Fla. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

“In terms of impacts and climate change, yes, this season could be a harbinger of sort of what is to come,” Kristen Corbosiero, a hurricane scientist at the University of Albany, told the Associated Press. “But it’s really hard to say that climate change has an impact on any one storm in terms of its formation or its individual intensity.”

A growing body of evidence strongly suggests that climate change is amplifying the effects of naturally occurring events like drought, wildfires, extreme rainfall and heat waves, making the debate over blaming one specific event on rising temperatures increasingly beside the point.

Yet while some experts are hesitant to directly link Hurricane Ian or any other specific single event to climate change, many are pointing to the findings that push the boundary between correlation into the territory of causation.

“There is no question in my mind, or really in the mind of most scientists who study these connections,” climatologist and geophysicist Michael Mann said Wednesday, in response to MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle’s question about whether there was "any doubt in your mind whether climate change was to blame” for Hurricane Ian.

“It’s really not that complicated,” Mann continued. “The warmer the oceans and the deeper those layers of warm water — and that’s one of the things we’re seeing with the warming of the planet, that heat penetrates deeper into the ocean, so that when the hurricane churns up those deeper waters, they’re still warm. They don’t dampen the hurricane as they used to.”

Mann emphasized what is by now obvious to the overwhelming majority of climate scientists: Rising global temperatures are worsening the effects of some natural phenomena.

“All of these things are being impacted by climate change," he said, "and all of that is on top of sea level rise, melting ice, higher sea levels on which these storm surges are placed, giving us again even larger amounts of coastal flooding.”