June 23, 2024

Misinformation spread by climate deniers like Florida’s extremist Republican governor, Ron DeSantisincrease the “vulnerability” of communities in the path of severe weather events, scientists warn.

The message comes on Saturday, the first day of what experts fear could be one of the most intense and dangerous Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, a summer of natural disasters looms across the US.

Earlier this month, DeSantis signed law to delete the words “climate change” from Florida statutes and in effect pledge the state’s future to burning fossil fuels, a significant contributing factor in global warming and a unprecedented “supersizing” of hurricanes’ destructive power.

“I can say I don’t believe in gravity, but if I walk off a cliff, I’m still going down,” Katharine Hayhoe, the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, said during a webinar hosted by the group to discuss expectations for the six-month hurricane season.

“When we choose not to respond to the information that science provides us, it is a choice to increase our vulnerability rather than decrease it.”

Hayhoe also noted that “hurricanes are getting stronger and more dangerous, heavy rainfall is becoming more frequent, home insurance is going up”, and says she is “concerned about what this means for my city”.

“We can say all those things without saying the words ‘climate change,'” she continued.

“There are conversations that can still happen, and still have to happen. It illustrates the importance of cities, community organizations, researchers, businesses, homeowners associations and insurance companies having that conversation and making the direct connection between what is happening and why it matters to our homes, the places we live, our families and the people, places and things that matter most.”

Hayhoe said waters in the Atlantic and Caribbean were already as warm as temperatures usually recorded at the height of the hurricane season in August and September. This does not bode well for a summer in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects up to 25 named tropical stormsincluding four to seven major hurricanes with winds at 111mph (179km/h) or higher.

“Heat-trapping gases build up in the atmosphere and wrap an extra blanket around the planet, and almost 90% of this extra heat goes to the ocean,” she said.

“We’ve been looking at record warm ocean temperatures for over a year now and that’s what’s fueling these storms. When you think about that massive amount of heat and tropical storms that are plugged into the ocean as their power source, you can understand how we really supercharge these events.”

The destructive power of storms has intensified so much in recent years that a scientific study recommended in February adding a category 6 to the existing five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale to account for mega-hurricanes with sustained winds above 192mph. During the past decade, five storms would have met that criterion, the researchers said.

Hayhoe said other factors, including the amount of inland rainfall a storm could bring, also need to be considered.

“There are indications that the storms are moving slower, which contributes to more rain because they sit over you longer,” she said. “And once they move over land, we see that they last longer and weaken more slowly, so they reach further inland with greater impact.”

Shenique Albury-Smith, deputy director of the conservancy’s Caribbean division, said the changing nature of extreme storm events should be seen as a call to action for governments, community groups and others to work together in a quest for mitigation.

She has as an example a mangrove restoration project implemented in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian in 2019 which caused widespread devastation to the island nation.

“We used data and technology to support communities in planning before a hurricane hits, and in the recovery phase afterward,” she said.

A stranded boat in the Fortune Bay neighborhood of Grand Bahama, during Hurricane Dorian, on September 6, 2019. Photo: Sipa US/Alamy

“How do you build a community’s skills and capabilities to prepare for any type of disaster beyond hurricanes, for floods and landslides, as well as things like fires? It works with the community to teach them how to self-assess their vulnerabilities so they can also work with experts who might come in from the Red Cross, or the Nature Conservancy, or government experts.”

Hayhoe said it is important that discussion about stronger storms is focused on resilience, mitigation and global efforts to combat the climate emergency.

“Hurricanes provide a very strong fingerprint of how human activity, specifically the emission of heat-trapping gases, is driving our weather to extremes and making it much more dangerous in a warming world,” she said.

“Disaster is a function of hazard and exposure: how many people and how much infrastructure, what things of value are exposed? Because if you have a Category 5 hurricane that never makes landfall and it doesn’t hit any ships, there’s no exposure and it’s not a disaster.

“The third component is vulnerability. How prepared are we? How resilient are we? Vulnerability is a key indicator of whether or not a hazard turns into a disaster with exposure.

“So we need to talk about hurricanes in a way that directly addresses people’s vulnerability and empowers them to take action. We know we have solutions, many of them working with nature rather than against nature, to help us mitigate and adapt to this risk.”

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