Should Canada’s East Coast start bracing for stronger hurricanes?
This comes weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, which left 82 people dead and caused catastrophic flooding.
The hurricane season is also far from over, and experts are saying Canada is not immune to these disasters.
“We have 13 hurricanes in the Atlantic basin so far this year,” Environment Canada’s senior climatologist, Dave Phillips said. “And we’re only halfway through as the season ends in November. Atlantic Canada is most at risk here.”
Although climatologists predicted 2017 would be a high hurricane season, the amount of destruction Harvey, Irma and now Maria have created, could be cause for alarm.
Are hurricanes getting worse?
Climatologists are cautious when pairing the words climate change and hurricanes, Phillips said.
Scientists are much more certain that climate change causes devastating heat waves, a rise in sea level and more extreme precipitation. That’s because there is a lot of data for scientists to sift through, he said.
But hurricanes are trickier.
“Hurricanes are not that frequent, so it’s hard to know if they are acting weird, wild or wacky,” he said. “We didn’t have great records of them until the 1960s, so there’s not a lot to compare it to.”
Anthony Farnell, Global News’ chief meteorologist said it’s also normal for hurricane cycles to ramp up and quiet down. This year has been remarkably quiet in the western Pacific but very active in the Atlantic, he said.
“The United States just went through a record drought of almost 12 years without a major hurricane hitting. This had never happened before,” Farnell said. “One could easily argue that a major hurricane hit or two was long overdue.”
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Phillips agrees. He said the number of hurricanes can increase or decrease every year, but it usually does not change over a long period of time.
Although the number of hurricanes is not changing, the severity of storms could be.
“Category 3, 4 and 5 storms are happening more often. That is important as the minor storms don’t cause as much damage but the higher storms demolish islands and dwellings,” he said.
James Elsner, a climate scientist at Florida State University, published a review on how climate change has affected hurricanes over the last 30 years in Nature Climate Change. It found a slight trend in the data toward more powerful but less frequent storms.
Why are they more severe?
Hurricanes are fueled by warm air and ocean water and climate change can create a slightly better condition for the storms, Sean Sublette, a meteorologist with Climate Central, said.
“The Atlantic Ocean is warmer than it was a few decades ago,” he said. “So there is more opportunity for a hurricane to be stronger with more rainfall or winds.”
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Rising sea levels also help create a more destructive storm.
“The rising sea level does produce storm surges that are higher, meaning the water can go further inland and cause more damage,” Sublette said.
Should Canadians be worried?
Atlantic Canada should prepare for more powerful hurricanes, Phillips said.
According to Environment Canada, a hurricane stronger than Category 3 is nearly impossible in Canada because the country’s water temperatures – even when they are warm – are simply too cold to support such a storm.
However, if the waters continue to warm, then the hurricanes could get more powerful and cause more destruction.
“We should think the weather in the future is going to be wilder, so we should prepare for it,” he said, “This is not just a Florida thing. It could be a Halifax thing, too.”
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