The Skywriter





Today we observe a grim anniversary in our history. On the morning of August 28, 2005, at 6:10 a.m., Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the coast of Louisiana, packing devastating winds of up to 125 mph. Katrina affected communities from Florida to Mississippi, but it was in New Orleans that the storm left its cruelest footprint: 1,464 dead, more than 500,000 displaced (the largest population displacement in American history since the Civil War), over $22 billion in property damage, and an entire American city under water. The truly frightening prospect, however, is that thanks to global warming, Katrina may have been just a preview of things to come.

A 2005 study on the relationship between increased hurricane intensity and climate change tells the story:

A massive global increase in the number of strong hurricanes over the past 35 years is being blamed on global warming, by the most detailed study yet. The US scientists warn that Katrina-strength hurricanes could become the norm.

Worldwide since the 1970s, there has been a near-doubling in the number of Category 4 and 5 storms – the strength that saw Hurricane Katrina do such damage to the US Gulf coastline late in August 2005.

Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, says the trend is global, has lasted over several decades and is connected to a steady worldwide increase in tropical sea temperatures. Because of all these factors, it is unlikely to be due to any known natural fluctuations in climate such as El Niño, the North Atlantic Oscillation or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

“We can say with confidence that the trends in sea surface temperatures and hurricane intensity are connected to climate change,” says Webster’s co-author Judy Curry, also of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The team looked at the incidence of intense tropical storms and the study results are the strongest affirmation yet that Katrina-level hurricanes are becoming more frequent in a warmer world.

The tragic effects of Katrina on New Orleans were compounded by the fact that the storm directly hit some of the poorest communities in America—communities that were ill-prepared for such a calamity. It's worth revisiting one of the most important climate reports released this year, A Climate of Change: African Americans, Global Warming, and a Just Climate Policy for the U.S., to understand just how vulnerable there communities are to the destructive effects of global warming-fueled extreme weather (h/t to It's Getting Hot in Here):

The first step of disaster prevention efforts is often on the individual or family level, even though a disaster may affect the whole community, region, or state. People are encouraged to set aside emergency supplies to last for three days without electricity or water, including extra equipment such as first aid kits, flashlights, and blankets. For people living in poverty, these basic necessities are often difficult, if not impossible, to keep in reserve, especially if there is hunger in the family. When a disaster is imminent, these same families are sometimes encouraged, but often mandated to evacuate. Yet without a car or adequate transit or evacuation systems, how are they to do so? If they are homeowners, and are uninsured, there may be an incentive to stay and protect their homes.

Thinking of the tragedy we witnessed three years ago helps me remember just how vital it is that we succeed in moving our leaders to take bold action on climate change. Yes, it's vital we succeed so we can build a new economy and create millions of green jobs that will lift people out of poverty and protect out environment. But for some, there's even more at stake. For some, like the thousands of Americans who lost their livelihood, their homes, their loved ones, or even their lives, bold climate action is literally a matter of life and death.

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