Hurricanes are on track to being too much for the U.S. economy to handle

It kinda feels like hurricanes are getting worse, doesn’t it?

Back in August, I talked about how we’ve entered what I call The Age of Endless Recovery after researchers at UC Davis actually put numbers on how extreme weather events are hurting economic growth in the United States. Since then, the hurricane season has hit, devastating communities from the Caribbean north. The thing is, a lot of our awareness of these events depends on news corporations choosing to cover them. There’s been a lot of news about named storms, but I haven’t seen nearly as much attention paid to the drought in China, for example (and yeah, I haven’t been better on that). I also can’t help but think about the way crime reporting has convinced many people that violent crime is increasing, even as the trend has been in the opposite direction. I also know that the rhetoric about extreme weather getting more frequent and worse has led some people to think that climate scientists have been predicting that hurricanes specifically will be getting more frequent and worse. The actual prediction has been that while rising ocean temperatures will increase the number of tropical cyclones, the increase in wind shear will lead to a decrease in the number of those cyclones that survive long enough to become actual hurricanes. So, fewer hurricanes. The problem is that the warmer water that makes more of those cyclones will also make the hurricanes that do form much more likely to be powerful. I’ll let Peter Hadfield explain in this old Potholer54 video:


I think the effect of this is that it will feel like there are more storms, because there are more that are big enough to require politicians to request aid, and get good ratings over multiple news cycles. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a matter of things making sense on the surface. Research out of UW Madison found that hurricanes really are getting stronger:

In almost every region of the world where hurricanes form, their maximum sustained winds are getting stronger. That is according to a new study by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Center for Environmental Information and University of Wisconsin–Madison Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, who analyzed nearly 40 years of hurricane satellite imagery.

A warming planet may be fueling the increase.

“Through modeling and our understanding of atmospheric physics, the study agrees with what we would expect to see in a warming climate like ours,” says James Kossin, a NOAA scientist based at UW–Madison and lead author of the paper, which is published today (May 18, 2020) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research builds on Kossin’s previous work, published in 2013, which identified trends in hurricane intensification across a 28-year data set. However, says Kossin, that timespan was less conclusive and required more hurricane case studies to demonstrate statistically significant results.

To increase confidence in the results, the researchers extended the study to include global hurricane data from 1979-2017. Using analytical techniques, including the CIMSS Advanced Dvorak Technique that relies on infrared temperature measurements from geostationary satellites to estimate hurricane intensity, Kossin and his colleagues were able to create a more uniform data set with which to identify trends.

“The main hurdle we have for finding trends is that the data are collected using the best technology at the time,” says Kossin. “Every year the data are a bit different than last year, each new satellite has new tools and captures data in different ways, so in the end we have a patchwork quilt of all the satellite data that have been woven together.”

I actually really like this article, because of its links to Kossin’s other work, because in addition to being stronger, he’s found evidence that they’re traveling further (makes sense to me), but moving more slowly, which means much more flooding:

Kossin’s previous research has shown other changes in hurricane behavior over the decades, such as where they travel and how fast they move. In 2014, he identified poleward migrations of hurricanes, where tropical cyclones are travelling farther north and south, exposing previously less-affected coastal populations to greater risk.

In 2018, he demonstrated that hurricanes are moving more slowly across land due to changes in Earth’s climate. This has resulted in greater flood risks as storms hover over cities and other areas, often for extended periods of time.

“Our results show that these storms have become stronger on global and regional levels, which is consistent with expectations of how hurricanes respond to a warming world,” says Kossin. “It’s a good step forward and increases our confidence that global warming has made hurricanes stronger, but our results don’t tell us precisely how much of the trends are caused by human activities and how much may be just natural variability.”

Now, those of you who’ve been paying attention will know already that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. In this age of science and technology, we have both the knowledge and the resources to largely disaster-proof our populations. Horror shows like Hurricane Katrina, or any recent catastrophic storm, are almost always so devastating because those in power didn’t think that adequate infrastructure was worth the expense. We prioritized money over life, and so life was lost. You may also be familiar with the saying, “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”. If we prepare for conditions that we know will occur; if we build real levees and sea walls, if we reinforce and maintain the electrical grid, if we move communities away from places where sea walls won’t work – if we do the things that science has shown will help to mitigate the harm done by extreme weather events – we can save both lives and money.

Unfortunately, that is not the trend we’re on right now. A new study out of the Pottsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows that we’re on track for hurricanes that do more damage than the US economy can handle:

“Tropical cyclones draw their energy from ocean surface heat. Also, warmer air can hold more water which eventually can get released in heavy rains and flooding that often occur when a hurricane makes landfall,” says Robin Middelanis from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Potsdam University, lead author of the study. “It’s thus clear since long that hurricane damages will become bigger if we continue to heat up our Earth system.” While we might not have more hurricanes in the future, the strongest among them could get more devastating.
“Now, one of the important questions is: can we deal with that, economically? The answer is: not like this, we can’t,” says Middelanis. “Our calculations show, for the first time, that the US economy as one of the strongest on our planet, will eventually not be able to offset the losses in their supply chains on their own. Increasing hurricane damages will exceed the coping capacities of this economic super-power.”

I think it’s worth noting here that for poorer countries, natural disasters are probably at or beyond that threshold already. It’s also worth remembering that the poverty of those countries is almost invariably due to the abuses of imperialist powers. Haiti is probably the best example, at least in the “New World”, as they were forced to pay France for the crime of winning their independence, and have been repeatedly invaded, robbed, and otherwise harmed by the United States in particular. As we work to change our relationship with the environment, we must also work to end these economic injustices that have been deliberately maintained by the rich and powerful of the world. Unfortunately, this research shows what we’ve known for a long time: if we don’t change course in a big way, even wealthy nations are going to get stuck in a downward spiral, and they will absolutely steal more resources from poorer nations in an attempt to maintain their own comfort. The grim reality is that our entire system, from food production, to infrastructure, to trade, is all set up to work in climate conditions that no longer exist. The farther away we get from those conditions, the more things will break down.

The scientists looked at the 2017 hurricane Harvey that hit Texas and Louisiana and already then cost the enormous sum of 125 billion US Dollars in direct damages alone, and computed what its impacts would be like under different levels of warming. Importantly, losses from local business interruption propagate through the national and global supply chain network, leading to additional indirect economic effects. In their simulations of over 7000 regional economic sectors with more than 1.8 million supply chain connections, the scientists find that the US national economy’s supply chains cannot compensate future local production losses from hurricanes if climate change continues.
“We investigated global warming levels of up to 5°C – which unfortunately might be reached by the end of our century if climate policy fails us,” says Anders Levermann, head of complexity science at PIK and scientist at New York’s Columbia University, a co-author of the study. “We do not want to quantify temperature thresholds for the limit of adaptation of the US economy’s national supply chains, since we feel there’s too much uncertainty involved. Yet we are certain that eventually the US economy’s supply chain capacities as they are now will not be enough if global warming continues. There is a limit of how much the US economy can take, we just don’t know exactly where it is.”

“Bad for people”

Ironically, in the case of hurricane Harvey it is in particular the oil and gas industry in Texas which suffers from the impacts of hurricanes driven by global warming – while global warming is in turn driven by the emissions from burning oil and gas, plus of course coal. The fossil fuel extraction sector is big in that region of the US, and it is vulnerable to cyclone damages. The computer simulations show that production losses in the fuel sector will be amongst those which will be most strongly compensated by countries like Canada and Norway, but also Venezuela and Indonesia, at the expense of the US economy.
“When things break and production fails locally, there’s always someone in the world who is happy to make money by selling the replacement goods,” says Levermann. “So why worry? Well, reduced production means increasing prices, and even if that means it’s good for some economies, it is generally bad for the consumers – the people. Also from a global economic perspective, shifts due to disrupted supply chains can mean that less efficient producers step in. It’s a pragmatic, straightforward conclusion that we need to avoid increasing greenhouse gas emissions which amplify this kind of disruptions.”

It seems likely that I have different political and economic goals from the people who wrote this article, but I think their analysis is solid when it comes to how global warming will affect the United States, absent significant change. It’s important to remember that even within the economic framework that neoliberals claim to believe is so perfect, the rising temperature means disaster on the horizon. It’s also important to remember that the people in power almost certainly know this, and rather than trying to change course, they seem to be preparing to set themselves up in fortress bunkers while the rest of us starve, burn, drown, or agree to serve them in exchange for the scraps they decide to give us (I’ll probably have a rant about that out soon).

In the end, it comes back to the same thing. We need revolutionary political change if humanity is to have a future worth fighting for. Giving all the power to pathological money hoarders has led to global catastrophe, and there is no real plan, within this political and economic system, to make the world better. At most, some of the people at the top are hoping for a technological miracle that will save everyone else without them having to give up anything. Revolutionary change doesn’t have to mean war, though people in power tend to choose that over losing their power, but it does mean we need lots of people working together in an organized fashion. Things aren’t likely to collapse all at once, but it seems pretty clear where we’re heading. Our ruling class sees all of us as expendable, and as less important than their hoards, so we will have to figure this out for ourselves.

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  1. Katydid says

    Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida and swamped Louisiana in 1992, Hurricane Katrina swamped Louisiana in 2005…and so on and so forth. When they do hit, they are progressively bigger and stronger, and the season lasts longer.

    When they hit mostly white places, it’s declared a major emergency, when they hit mostly non-white places, it’s hand-waved away.

    Meanwhile, too many in America want to drive their massive replacement-for-their-manhood vehicles and believe once the pregnancy test shows a positive, they need a vehicle the size of a supertanker. And live in sprawling overheated McMansions in the suburbs where they have to drive everywhere. And the Earth keeps warming.

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