human activity and the destruction of the planet

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2017: the worst hurricane season on record

The following statistics are available from an article by Paul Simons in The Times on 27th December 2017:

Ten consecutive storms reached hurricane status; this is the first time it has happened since 1893.  These storms included two category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, the first time this has happened in ten years.

Hurricane Irma’s strongest winds (185mph) broke the record for wind-speed intensity for an Atlantic hurricane outside the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Irma also maintained its peak intensity for 37 hours, a record for a cyclone anywhere in the world; the previous record was 24 hours, set by Typoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.

Hurricane Harvey rained more heavily than any hurricane ever recorded in US history. About 1,640mm (64.6″) fell in one location in Texas and an estimated 127 billion tonnes of rain fell in total in the state — so much that it compressed the Earth’s crust by roughly 2cm.

Three of the largest hurricanes hit land at their peak intensity, causing huge devastation. Much of the Caribbean lies in ruins in the aftermath of both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria; the island of Barbuda was so devastated that it is uninhabited for the first time in 300 years. See:

Devastation in Barbuda after Hurricane Irma hit the island

Puerto Rica was hit by Hurricane Maria and the number of deaths there is estimated to be over 1,000.  It also affected power and water supplies.

The entire hurricane season in the US is reckoned to have been the most destructive in history, taking historical inflation into account, with damage totalling an estimated $206 billion (£154 billion).

Now, a recent article by Eleanor Ainge Roy in The Guardian reports that there are calls for a revision of the scale used to measure hurricanes.  Currently, a category 5 hurricane is the worst, describing near-total destruction. But climate scientists meeting at a conference in the New Zealand city of Wellington have floated the idea of creating a category six to reflect the increasing severity of tropical cyclones in the wake of warming sea temperatures and climate change.

New research, published in Nature, shows that rising global temperatures could be causing tropical storms to slow down, allowing them more time to unleash heavy rainfall once making landfall. The research found that the speed at which they travel across the Earth has slowed by an average of 10% over the past 70 years, with the speed of storms originating in the Western North Pacific falling by 30%. An example of this effect was seen during Hurricane Harvey, which stalled over Houston, releasing 100cm of rain in just three days.

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More extreme weather events caused by climate change?

The US state of Texas has experienced some terrifying extreme winds and unprecedented flooding as a result of Hurricane Harvey.  Photographs in the US press show homes destroyed, highways flooded and elderly people in an old people’s home sitting up to their waists in flood water.

Climate experts have been saying for a while that tornados, monsoons, tropical cyclones, hurricanes and flooding are becoming more extreme.  Climate change deniers are saying there is no evidence of a link between climate change and severe weather events but that these events are just due to natural variability.  However, I feel that the scientific evidence produced from studying 140 weather events around the world from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the California drought shows a clear link. The result is mounting evidence that human activity is raising the risk of some types of extreme weather, especially those linked to heat.

Carbon Brief has mapped all of these events:

and their analysis suggests that 63% of all extreme weather events studied were made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change. Heatwaves account for nearly half of such events (46%), droughts make up 21% and heavy rainfall or floods account for 14%.

A recent article in The Guardian (28th August 2017) by Michael E. Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, has discussed whether Hurricane Harvey was caused by climate change. He concluded that climate change has worsened the impact of the Hurricane and other extreme weather events.  See:

And where is Trump in all of this?

I wonder whether the current US devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will change Donald Trump’s mind about the reality of climate change. 


Probably not, as he only seems to listen to the group of buddies he has gathered around him at the White House, most of whom have a vested interest in continuing to burn fossil fuels.  But will the swamped and bereaved residents of Houston and Florida allow him to continue on this blinkered course?

A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists has raised another problem arising from Hurricane Harvey: that more then 650 energy and industrial facilities may have been flooded as a result of the hurricane, with the Gulf Coast being home to many chemical industries as well, thus raising the risk of people living in the Houston area of being exposed to toxic chemicals.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace have pointed out that the global media has focused on the disaster in Texas and ignored all the other tragic weather events taking place across the globe.  These include:

Flooding in South Asia:

In India, Nepal and Bangladesh 1200 people have also been recently killed by flooding, with 1.8 million children unable to go to school. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) estimates more than 41 million people have been affected by monsoon rains and severe flooding as of June this year. Whilst the numbers are massive, the stories to come out of this disaster are just as tragic. Several people are reported to have died from falling into open manholes, a two-year-old has lost her life to a wall collapse and many are reported to be missing.

Sierra Leone:

Two weeks ago a mudslide hit Sierra Leone, killing at least 499 people.


Niger floods force thousands from their homes:

Serious flooding has led the authorities in Niger to order thousands of people to leave their homes in the capital Niamey. While many are sheltering in schools, others have nowhere to go. Already the torrential rains are reported to have killed at least 44 people in Niamey and other parts of the West African country since June, and has caused the destruction of hundreds of houses.

Storm Lidia

Tropical Storm Lidia hit the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula with heavy rain and high winds on Thursday evening. While not projected to reach hurricane strength, authorities in the state of Baja California Sur suspended classes and flights until conditions were deemed safe.

Hurricane Irma:

This powerful hurricane rapidly intensified in the open Atlantic, posing a major threat to the Caribbean and potentially the United States. Initially labelled a tropical storm, Irma strengthened into a large Category 5 hurricane in a process known as “rapid intensification”.  This has caused extreme damage to many of the Caribbean islands, leaving thousands homeless.  Full news of the devastation is yet to emerge.


Mark Lynas of CNN has written, “this is what climate change looks like”. See:

He goes on to say:

“It is not politically opportunistic to raise this issue now. Instead we have a moral duty not to accept the attempted conspiracy of silence imposed by powerful political and business interests opposed to any reduction in the use of fossil fuels. We owe this to the people of Texas as much to those of Bangladesh and India, and Niger — which was also struck by disastrous flooding this week.

Climate disasters demonstrate our collective humanity and interdependence. We have to help each other out — in the short term by saving lives and in the longer term by cutting greenhouse gases and enhancing resilience, especially in developing countries.”