Last year’s hurricane season was the costliest ever, causing US$215bn in losses, according to Munich Re, but new research predicts that compared to what lies ahead, we haven’t seen anything yet.
According to a new study led by the US’ National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the hurricanes of the future will be stronger, bring much more precipitation, and be slower moving – allowing more time to wreak havoc on coastal communities.
The culprit behind the escalation? A warming climate.
NCAR’s study took more than 20 actual past Atlantic hurricanes and ran high-resolution computer simulations to find out what the storms would look like if they made landfall towards the end of this century, when global temperatures are expected to be hotter.
Overall, three common themes emerged among the future hurricanes: Their winds were 6% stronger, they moved at a 9% slower speed, and they dropped 24% more precipitation.
"Our research suggests that future hurricanes could drop significantly more rain," says NCAR scientist Ethan Gutmann, who led the study. "Hurricane Harvey demonstrated last year just how dangerous that can be."
Painful memories of last year’s disaster are still fresh in the minds of many. In some parts of Houston, Texas, Harvey dumped over 1.2 metres of rainwater, causing the city to become crippled by flooding. Businesses in the region grappled with severe disruption for weeks.
What’s more, the impact of future hurricanes on public safety and the economy will be exacerbated by the stream of people and businesses onto the coastlines. "This study shows that the number of strong hurricanes, as a percent of total hurricanes each year, may increase," says Ed Bensman, program director at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which was involved in the study. "With increased development along coastlines, that has important implications for future storm damage."
Past studies have tended to only focus on a single storm, making it difficult to generalise any findings, but NCAR’s research is comprehensive. "What we find looking at more than 20 storms is that some change one way, while others change in a different way,” says Gutmann. “There is so much variability that you can't just study one storm and then extrapolate to all storms."