Climate change could drive cyclones to new extremes

What’s happening? The range of hurricanes and typhoons could expand to affect the earth’s mid-latitude regions due to the impact of global warming on the jet stream, meaning that such events could more frequently impact major cities including Beijing, Boston, New York and Tokyo, according to a study led by Yale University. At present, cyclones mainly occur in tropical regions north and south of the equator. The analysis argues that 2020’s subtropical storm Alpha, which was the first tropical cyclone known to have made landfall in Portugal, and Hurricane Henri that affected Connecticut, could be viewed as the first of such storms. (Nature Geoscience, The Independent)

Why does this matter? The possibility of cyclones reaching areas beyond coastal and tropical regions raises threats to more densely populated areas. Worryingly, from an Earth history perspective, the research also concludes by 2100 such storms could have a wider range than they have had in the last three million years.

Cyclones have been the most destructive extreme weather events over the past 150 years, and are also the most expensive in the US, costing an average of almost $21.5bn for each storm between 1980 and 2020.

Aside from obvious implications to communities and infrastructure, it’s also worth looking at some of the lesser-considered impacts of storms. Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017, for instance, resulted in an estimated $90bn in damages. Alongside infrastructure, included in this was damage to up to half a million vehicles, with estimated costs for damaged licensed cars totalling nearly $5bn. It’s worth noting across the state of Texas, 94.4% of households have cars – the impacts can hit home hard.

How else can storms impact us? The increasing reach of hurricanes, and their knock-on effects of strong winds and storm surges, could also mean larger disruptions to industries, such as shipping. Storm-affected seas caused losses of nearly 1,000 shipping containers in the first few months of 2021, in addition to accidents with other ships – and worryingly, collisions with undersea infrastructure, including oil pipelines.

Social costs of extreme weather – Aside from material damage, the true cost of extreme weather events in poorer countries that contribute the least to climate change, but are disproportionately vulnerable to its impacts, is difficult to measure and often leads to broader social implications. For example, the increased frequency and intensity of disasters will displace even larger populations, forcing them to move away from their homes and unfortunately leaving them vulnerable to modern slavery and human trafficking.

In Alaska, climate-driven coastal erosion and flooding is threatening to displace Indigenous communities. The forced relocation of these groups away from their ancestral homes means not only the abandonment of culturally significant land, but the direct erosion of their way of life, cultural rights and traditional knowledge, which is crucial to improving how we approach climate change adaptation and mitigation.

What can be done? The scientists state temperature differences between equatorial regions and the poles (which could directly increase or decrease the formation and severity of cyclones) are closely tied to climate change, meaning limiting emissions could reduce the risk significantly. Rapid, large-scale climate action could reduce storm exposure for around 1.8 billion people by 2100, particularly in regions around the Arab Peninsula and East Africa, highlighting the benefits for future human lives of taking action now.

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