Are hurricanes getting worse because of climate change?

Hurricane Irene swept Eastern United States over the weekend. Is climate change to blame for Irene? We interviewed science and political journalist Chris Mooney to find out.

Although Hurricane Irene may have weakened to a tropical storm by the time it reached New York, it still shut the city that never sleeps down over the weekend and left a trail of destruction along the East Coast. Some are telling their stories though social media and are reporting damages by crowd sourcing it. But numbers say more: Irene caused an estimated $7 billion in damages and killed 21. Still, many Americans are at risk of power outages and flooding, as rivers swell past their banks.

In due time, East Coast residents will repair damages and we will perhaps remember this storm as something everyone was worried about (but in the end, it wasn't as bad as it could have been).

Many experts do think hurricanes will get more intense as the planet heats up. Which would mean, the hurricanes would be much more destructive.

To get some perspective, I asked Chris Mooney, the author of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, about Hurricane Irene and what it might mean for the future of coastal cities. Mooney is a science and political journalist, and writes for the blog, The Intersection. Mooney is a New Orleans native, but lives in Washington D.C.

I caught up with him while he was on business trip in Mississippi.

SmartPlanet: Lucky you, you missed the hurricane! Did you think it was going to be bad?

CM: The forecasts said it was going to be a tropical storm in DC, so I moved a few bits of outdoor furniture in, and locked up. But I didn't think it was going to be very bad there, no. I did change my flight because I was afraid that it might not get out on Sunday. But now it seems DC is functioning normally.

SmartPlanet: You're from New Orleans, so Katrina personally impacted you. How does Hurricane Irene compare to Katrina?

CM: To me there's hardly any comparison. Irene was, at its peak, a Category 3 hurricane, and a Category 1 at landfall in the United States. Katrina was a terrifying Category 5 whose minimum central pressure dropped down to 902 millibars.

We got worked up about Irene because of the track the storm was on--and it did focus needed attention on the vulnerability of New York City.

But I'm afraid to say, an East Coast hurricane will arrive some day with the potential to do vastly more damage than Irene.

SmartPlanet: Now millions are without power. The storm surge is causing flooding. What do you think the long term impact of a storm like this will have? What's the solution?

CM: The upshot is that if a Category 1 hurricane can do this to the East Coast, just imagine a stronger storm, surfing atop a higher sea caused by global warming.

We can't move coastal cities. We should be building vastly stronger sea defenses right now, before it is too late. That goes for New York most of all.

SmartPlanet: As climate change raises sea level, it might intensify hurricanes.  Can you explain this?

CM: Global warming has already raised sea levels somewhat, so every storm can push water further inland before. Global warming probably also increases the rainfall of each storm, once that storm comes to exist--and this may exacerbate damaging flooding.

But beyond that, I find it odd to try to link global warming to a Category 1 landfalling storm that just happened to be on a particular track up the East Coast. There are hurricanes every year, and where Irene ended up had vastly more to do with the atmospheric steering currents than anything else.

That said, there are many cities in the U.S. that are deeply vulnerable to storm surges from powerful hurricanes, and global warming only makes this risk worse over time. Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, Houston/Galveston, and New York/Long Island are among the most vulnerable, and all need to be taking steps to protect themselves.

SmartPlanet: Well Hurricane Irene was the first hurricane of the season. Any idea what the rest of the hurricane season holds?

CM: I expect several more hurricanes this year, and perhaps a few more very strong ones. We're nearing the peak of the season, but the busiest time continues until late October.

Sometimes, as in 2004 when four hurricanes hit Florida, the steering patterns set up a certain way for a season and the storms follow similar tracks. Let's hope this isn't a year like that.

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