Climate change: The perfect fuel for hurricanes
By Cecilia Vásquez
A succession of unusually strong hurricanes have struck the Americas over the last several weeks. The nearly unprecedented power of Harvey and Irma submerged cities, damaged homes and took lives, and several smaller hurricanes followed on their tails. Just how did these storms get so strong? Climate change is a big part of the problem.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are prime examples of what a routine storm fed with enough fuel can do: they caused floods and landslides, destroyed neighborhoods, claimed lives and left thousands of victims in their wake.
The fuel in both their cases was climate change—transforming already strong natural events into relentless storm surges. Warmer than average air temperatures produced greater humidity, feeding the hurricanes and making them ever more intense and violent.
Changes to our climate have also sped up the warming of the world’s coldest regions, causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. Higher sea levels plus increased ocean temperatures equals more fuel for hurricane season.
Hurricanes, however, are not isolated phenomena. Year after year, Latin America faces a series of natural catastrophes that are getting stronger, and causing far greater damage, due to climate change.
A vulnerable region
Extreme weather events, the water crisis, natural disasters, and coping with the impacts of climate change will have the greatest impact globally, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2017.
Across Latin America, these risks reared their heads in force this year. Severe and catastrophic natural events have changed landscapes, claimed lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people:
- In Mexico this month, hurricane Katia has caused floods and landslides, damaged infrastructure, and deaths. Mexico is one of the nations most affected by the impacts of climate change due to its location between oceans—which leaves it exposed to storms, floods and hurricanes—and its high level of poverty.
- In Northeast Peru last March, devastating rains after a period of severe drought caused mudslides, floods, and the mass destruction of homes and infrastructure. The storm left more than 90 dead, 110,000 victims, and 150,000 people diplaced.
- In Colombia in April, a sudden avalanche of mud and water caused by heavy rains devastated the town of Mocoa, in the department of Putumayo.
- In Chile, a period of intense drought caused wildfires that burned more than 500 thousand hectares and virtually destroyed the center and south of the country.
- Aggravated by climate change, El Niño gravely impacted the Central American Dry Corridor last year. A lack of rain, which began mid-2014 and lasted an unusually long time, provoked wildfire, the loss of crops, and the death of livestock in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
So how do we stop the fire?
The wave of severe weather events across the region and the world should be seen as a call to action. Governments and citizens alike must unite to seek solutions and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Governments around the world should unite their efforts to:
- Reduce short-lived climate pollutants, gases that remain a short time in the atmosphere and whose reduction would allow results in less time.
- Plan and adequately manage territory, indentifying the most vulnerable places and building strategic and flexible infrastructure that would lesson the impacts of extreme weather events.
- Preserve natural environments that fulfill vital climate functions, such as forests and mangroves that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or coral reefs, which act as natural barriers against storms and hurricanes.
- Disburse the economic resources destined to combatting climate change based on needs identified by the communities themselves, who are often not appropriately consulted, thereby wasting local knowledge that could lead to better decisions.
We can all contribute to the struggle. Daily actions such as responsible consumption of water and energy, using your car less, recycling, and changing harmful consumption habits can make a big difference.
At AIDA, we work with governments, organizations and communities across Latin America to promote development that is compatible with the challenges posed by climate change.
Learn more about how we’re confronting climate change and how we can all do it better in our webinar on September 29!