Does climate change make natural disasters stronger?

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Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis – these natural disasters can be as bad as each other, but the key question is: what impact does climate change have on them? And are the aftermaths of natural disasters becoming worse as a result? Patrick Bawn investigates. 

Whether you believe in climate change or not, the effect of natural disasters is undeniable. A trail of despair, destruction and desolation follows them wherever they hit. And with Hurricanes Maria, Jose, Harvey and Irma recently ravaging their way through the Caribbean and parts of the US, many have been left wondering whether we are now finally seeing the true after-effects of climate change in action.

While it may be easy to point the finger, climate change cannot be solely blamed for causing these devastating events. What can be said though, with a large degree of certainty, is that climate change has exacerbated things – making the outcomes of natural disasters a lot worse.

Helping hurricanes
For instance, rising sea temperatures, caused partly due to human influence, increase the moisture content in the atmosphere around us. In fact, for every 0.5°C that the sea temperature increases by, there is a 3% increase in the amount of moisture in the air.

Now, that moisture has to go somewhere – so where exactly does it go? Well, get the umbrellas ready – it’s about to chuck it down.

Fuelling floods
This change in rainfall potential gives rise to unrelenting water streaming down from the clouds, sometimes for days on end. When protective defences can’t handle that amount of water, it leads to flooding, and a significant amount of damage as a result.

Couple that with rising sea levels, and it’s no surprise that the effects of natural disasters are worse than they were a few decades ago. Global ice cover is at a record low, and worldwide oceans now carry eight inches more water than in 1880. Flood defences already have enough to deal with, so extra inches of water is not going to help things.

Supporting storms
Not only that, but storms and hurricanes need to keep themselves continuously fuelled to keep them going. And, in order to do this, they rely on a warmer ocean.

Since 1901, ocean surface temperatures have increased 0.072°C per decade – a relatively small number you might say, but it makes an incredible impact. Extra heat in the atmosphere and ocean nourishes storms; after all – the more heat energy that goes in, the more forcefully a weather system can churn.

This churning creates high-strength winds and heavy rainfall, causing the devastating effects of the hurricanes, flooding and other natural disasters we see splashed across the news. No pun intended.

Creating chaos
So, while climate change doesn’t necessarily cause natural disasters, it definitely makes them worse. If I’ve ever heard a better reason to advocate climate change, I’d say preventing the aftermath of a natural disaster is as good as any.

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