Sam Landstra–Staff Writer
Unexpectedly strong Hurricane Michael caused widespread devastation and has led scientists to connect the storm to global warming.
During the afternoon of October 10, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach, Florida. Blasting the small town with 155 mph winds, the storm was the first ever recorded Category 4 hurricane to hit the Florida panhandle, just two mph short of a Category 5. The storm surge caused by Michael rose as high as 14 feet, reaching from Mexico Beach to Apalachee Bay, a distance of 80 miles.
Over the next two days, Michael continued its path of destruction up through Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, causing widespread flooding and leaving over one million people without power.
As of Sunday, the death toll from Michael rose to 19, and this number is expected to keep rising as rescuers dig through the rubble in the hardest hit areas including as Mexico Beach and Panama City. Both of these towns were nearly decimated. Describing the wreckage, a Mexico Beach local said, “The mother of all bombs could not have done all this.”
Part of what made Hurricane Michael so devastating was that it took so many by surprise. The storm underwent a phenomenon known as “rapid intensification.” The National Hurricane Center describes this term as “the increase in sustained wind speeds of at least 35 miles per hour over the course of a single 24-hour period.” Hurricane Michael underwent three of these rapid intensifications, allowing it to transform from a 35 mph tropical depression to a near Category 5 hurricane in just 72 hours.
Rapid intensification is caused by warm ocean waters and high humidity, both of which were present in Hurricane Michael’s escalation. These warmer than usual conditions in the Gulf were also present in last year’s catastrophic hurricane season and have led many scientists to label this trend of unusually strong hurricanes as a symptom of global warming.
Dr. Channon Visscher, professor of chemistry and planetary sciences at Dordt, described the relationship between warm ocean water and hurricanes as “pretty unequivocal,” explaining that since hurricanes are fueled by warmer water, warmer surface waters that are being recorded in the Gulf raise the potential for more frequent and intense hurricanes.
While Visscher does not think it is reasonable for a single weather event such as Hurricane Michael to be decisively blamed on global warming, he does believe that a warmer planet increases the likelihood of more frequent and intense hurricanes such as Michael. Visscher explained that global warming causes a shift in the normal distribution of weather events. Under the effects of global warming, most weather stays the same. However, the likelihood of rarer weather phenomena is increased, allowing for increased precipitation, heatwaves, and strong hurricanes to occur.
When asked whether Hurricane Michael and the trend of stronger and more frequent hurricanes will convince people of climate change caused by global warming, Visscher said, “I think people will continue to believe what they always have believed regarding global warming.”
However, he does hope and think that Michael will continue to shift the conversation on global warming toward more people recognizing the effects caused by a warmer planet and working to find solutions that prevent future global temperature increases.
Hurricane Michael also came days after the UN released a report on climate change which warned of the catastrophic effects that could take place with a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Unless preventative action is taken, this rise is expected to occur by 2030 given current global trends.