Advertisement
  1. Local Weather

Scientists: Climate change made Hurricane Matthew stronger

This satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Matthew moving past Florida's Atlantic coast early Friday, Oct. 7, 2016.  Matthew was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane overnight, and its storm center hung just offshore as it moved up the Florida coastline, sparing communities its full 120 mph winds.   (NOAA via AP) NY108
This satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Matthew moving past Florida's Atlantic coast early Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. Matthew was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane overnight, and its storm center hung just offshore as it moved up the Florida coastline, sparing communities its full 120 mph winds. (NOAA via AP) NY108
Published Oct. 7, 2016

You can't blame climate change for creating Hurricane Matthew. But two Florida scientists say you can blame a warmer world for making the storm get so strong so fast.

Hurricanes and tropical storms gain their power from absorbing the heat of warm water. That's why hurricane season runs from June to November, when the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest.

This year, global temperature readings are setting new records every month, so that 2016 is on track to be the warmest year ever.

"Ocean temperatures are playing a big role in that," said David Zierden, Florida's state climatologist.

This summer, the waters around the Bahamas and off Florida's southeastern coast has been running at least 1 degree Celsius warmer than normal, he said.

"The warmer ocean temperatures surely helped fuel Matthew," Zierden said.

James Elsner, the chairman of Florida State University's geography department, has done an extensive study of how climate change affects hurricanes. There's no evidence that climate change is affecting the number of tropical storms and hurricanes that develop, he said, but there is evidence to show that it makes those storms stronger.

He explained the general rule: "The warmer the ocean, the greater the intensity."

October storms aren't generally all that powerful, but Matthew rapidly intensified to a Category 4 hurricane. That, he said, shows the effects of an ocean that's been heated up.

In his 2007 book Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, author Chris Mooney wrote that trying to link hurricanes to climate change had sparked "the biggest meteorological argument of the decade." The lack of adequate records for hurricanes prior to the development of satellite tracking made it difficult to find enough data to make a persuasive case, he found.

But further studies, including the one led by Elsner, have shown greater likelihood for the connection.

Climate change is producing another change in hurricanes, too. Rising sea levels — produced by a combination of melting Arctic ice and the higher temperatures making the water expand — is resulting in bigger storm surges. In Florida, the sea has risen an average of 8 inches over the past century, Zierden said.

Florida faces considerable challenges in dealing with climate change: It is frequently designated as the state most vulnerable to climate change because it's flat and surrounded on three sides by water, yet has no statewide plan for dealing with climate change.

Gov. Rick Scott has warned Floridians to take Hurricane Matthew seriously, warning that the storm is a "monster" that "will kill you." Yet the governor has expressed skepticism about whether climate change exists.

In 2015, former employees of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said they were banned from using terms such as "climate change" and "global warming."

The governor also supports GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has argued that climate change is just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to destroy the American economy.

Scott also has a home on the water in Naples that is vulnerable to rising seal levels.

Climate change is a problem for Tampa Bay in particular. In 2014 a federal report, the Third National Climate Assessment, declared the bay area region as one of three areas in Florida that are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels along with Apalachicola and Miami.

Two years ago, Scott did meet with Florida scientists who wanted to present him with the evidence, but he has yet to adopt any of the proposals put forward for combating the problem.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.