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Climate Change and Hurricane Harvey

The devastation dumped on Houston by Hurricane Harvey has raised the issue of whether climate change is responsible for the intensity of the storm. Research by NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory indicates that anthropogenic global warming is not likely to increase the number of Atlantic hurricanes, but is likely to increase their intensity.

There are two major reasons for this. First, the warming climate means higher sea levels. This, in turn, means more water giving the hurricane more energy. Second, the air itself holds more moisture when it is warmer. This provides yet more water for the hurricane to dump as rain.

Atlantic Basin Hurricane Counts, courtesy NOAA

The relationship between temperature increase and atmospheric moisture can be expressed mathematically, as climatologist Michael Mann explains.

There is a simple thermodynamic relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation that tells us there is a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each 0.5C of warming. Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than “average” temperatures a few decades ago. That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.

Yet the National Review—always more focused on the politics of climate change than the science—is only able to concede that anthropogenic global warming may have "created more rainfall by some small, undetectable amount". Not merely an unquantifiable amount, but an undetectable amount.

As long as the denial runs this deep, we will not be able to work toward reversing our dependence on fossil fuels. We will continue to see more intense hurricanes, more extreme flooding, more devastation, more destruction, more deaths.

Still, we would be wise to heed the warning of Grist's Cody Permenter, who says this is the time for compassion rather than science lectures.

But there are risks involved with serving up climate talk without nuance or compassion during a natural disaster. To an audience that already distrusts mainstream, well, anything, you can easily come across as callous and uncaring toward victims of the storm.

So donate to the Red Cross or another worthwhile charity, check up on any acquaintances you may know from the affected area, offer whatver help you can. The devastation in Houston is a grim reminder that we need to do something about climate change. But it's also a reminder of how vulnerable we all can be in the face of overwhelming disaster.

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