Evacuations began throughout the southeastern coast of the US on Wednesday, under the threat of a direct hit from a massive hurricane, the first to make landfall there in a decade. Hurricane Matthew is already among the most powerful storms in recent years, having killed at least 16 people as it passed through Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. It was the strongest storm to hit Haiti in 50 years. Late afternoon Wednesday, Hurricane Matthew was over the Bahamas, only 400 miles from Palm Beach, Florida. Evacuations were called for from Fort Lauderdale to Cape Canaveral in Florida, and as far north as the South Carolina coast. It is predicted to make landfall in Florida, as a Category 4 Hurricane.
In Florida, some grocery store shelves were eerily empty, as crowds of fearful shoppers rushed to purchase essential supplies.
Scientists have presented Hurricane Matthew as an example of the extreme weather that will continue to become more common as a result of climate change. Climate scientists and government officials have increasingly concluded that hurricane frequency in the North Atlantic has increased substantially since the early 1980s. The intense weather is expected to become both more common and more destructive as the climate continues to warm.
According to Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “We expect to see more high-intensity events, category 4 and 5 events, that are around 13 percent of total hurricanes but do a disproportionate amount of damage. The theory is robust and there are hints that we are already beginning to see it in nature.”
Warmer oceans increase wind speed, and increased levels of moisture raises precipitation to higher levels. According to some studies, the frequency of hurricanes may actually be reduced, while the ones that still occur will become increasingly destructive. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes could double or triple over the coming decades, according to some climate scientists.
The biggest threats to human life to come out of this change may be the higher risks of storm surges and flooding. With climate change raising sea levels, particularly on the east coast of the US, these floods may turn out to be the most dangerous aspect of hurricanes.
Emmanuel explains, “Storm surges and flooding are big killers, so this is a big worry. If Hurricane Sandy occurred 100 years earlier it may not have flooded lower Manhattan because the sea was about one foot lower in 1912.We expect another 3 feet in sea level rise by the end of the century, so we should expect steadily increasing damage. People moving to the coast really need to be aware of climate change.”