The Florida peninsula bravely occupies the space between the warm, salty Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Stream. On one hand, the warm waters offshore are responsible for the humid and verdant environment that Florida enjoys (it sits at latitudes more commonly associated with deserts). On the other hand, Florida’s geography leaves it vulnerable to attack by hurricanes from either side.
In October 2018 Hurricane Michael veered north of Tampa Bay but left a swath of devastation through the Florida panhandle, becoming the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States in decades and the latest ever in the season to landfall as a Cat 5. Earlier this year, Florida fell squarely in the uncertainty cone of Dorian, tied for the strongest-ever Atlantic hurricane to make landfall. Fortunately for Florida, the storm missed the peninsula once again. Another bullet dodged.
But as storms intensify with global warming, dangerous storms are not a matter of “if” but “when.” Two years ago, one of us (Michael) lectured in the historic town of New Bern, N.C., warning residents it was just a matter of time before they experienced their “Katrina.” Fatefully, less than a year later the church he spoke in was submerged by the storm surge of Hurricane Florence — another storm supercharged by climate change.
Tampa Bay has dodged multiple bullets in recent years -- major hurricanes headed its way that ultimately weakened or swerved away. Its low topography combined with relentlessly rising sea levels, more frequent major hurricanes and vulnerable infrastructure, nonetheless make Tampa Bay a sitting duck, ever more vulnerable to deadly storm surges like those that swept over coastal North Carolina with Florence and the Bahamas with Dorian.
Our warming planet is creating a perfect storm for tropical storms. Heated oceans intensify hurricanes into Cat 5 monsters. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, yielding heavier rainfall. Stronger winds create stronger storm surge, combining with inland rainfall to yield catastrophic “compound flooding.” These trends will only worsen if we continue to burn fossil fuels and generate carbon pollution.
Some claim we can “just adapt." But after viewing pictures in the Bahamas post-Dorian, where building codes are far stricter than ours, one wonders how the infrastructure in Florida will hold up.
We say this not to jump on the unhelpful bandwagon of doomism, but to highlight the urgency of action. While it is too late to stop global warming, we can prevent it from getting worse.
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And fortunately, there are a myriad of ways to take action. To build a better future, we need bankers, teachers, technicians, economists, politicians. We will need everyone to pitch in because it is all hands on deck.
Our optimism stems from a knowledge that we have risen to the challenge of confronting great adversity when we marshal our collective social and political will. We are at the cusp of such a societal tipping point on climate action. It is time to roll up your sleeves and fight like your future depends on it. Because it does.
Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy” (Columbia University Press, 2016). Andrea Dutton of Gainesville has just joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — far away from the most direct effects of sea-level rise. She is an expert in sea-level rise research.