Hurricanes: Evidence mounts that they’re getting stronger and wetter


A NOAA satellite caught this view of Hurricane Michael approaching Florida in 2018.


It’s not just the coronavirus pandemic and massive wildfires in Australia and on the US West Coast that have made 2020 a calamitous year. So far, at least, it’s also the second most active Atlantic hurricane season in history after 2005 (the year of Katrina). And it’s not over yet. 

Since May, the National Hurricane Center has now tracked 20 named systems, the earliest in a hurricane season it has ever reached that point. That leaves just one more name (Wilfred) before the NHC starts designating hurricanes with letters of the Greek alphabet — not quite a milestone we should be celebrating —  and with two more months before the season ends, we’re likely to get there.

Hurricanes, which usually begin as a collection of thunderstorms far across the ocean off the coast of Africa, are the focus of Eric Jay Dolin’s fascinating and engaging new book, A Furious Sky: The Five Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes. In an easy-to-devour 300 pages, Dolin details the United States’ long relationship with these destructive and deadly storms, the changes in our study of them and the concerning outlook for future hurricane seasons.

I spoke to Dolin earlier this week for CNET’s Now What interview series just as Hurricane Sally was approaching the Gulf Coast, a region that’s still recovering from last month’s Category 4 Hurricane Laura

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Atlantic hurricanes: A violent past and a worrisome future


From surprise to science

Dolin’s comprehensive account of hurricanes starts with a few that have changed history, like the one in 1780 that hastened French involvement in the American Revolution. Readers then come to know how, over the next 200 years, hurricanes went from being regarded as freakish acts of God to inevitable meteorological events that needed to be studied. His account of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is particularly sobering. Killing at least 6,000 people (and probably many more), it’s still the deadliest natural disaster in US history. It was almost a complete surprise.


“[Meteorologists] thought they understood the science of hurricanes and that none would ever strike Galveston,” Dolin says. “There was arrogance and a lack of information. So it behooves us today, even with all of our fancy technology and our ability to track hurricanes from their inception to dissolution, there are still secrets about hurricanes that we don’t know.” 


The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 obliterated the Texas island city 

Bettmann/Getty Images

The book devotes a healthy chapter to the technology that has helped us better understand hurricanes. Though satellites and hurricane hunter aircraft are obvious examples, Dolin also writes how the telegraph and radio let areas hit by a hurricane warn other places that they might be next. But even today, with the best data powering the best computer models, there’s only so much we can do beyond preparing for their landfall and the aftermath.

“There are limitations on how well we can predict these massive meteorological events and the course they’re going to take,” Dolin says. “No matter how well we know where hurricanes are and where they’re headed, we cannot avoid their strike. There’s nothing we can do to alter their course.”

What’s in a name?


Liveright Publishing

The histories of other notable hurricanes, like the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, 1969’s Hurricane Camille and 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, will keep your attention. But one of the book’s most intriguing stories is that of a person, Roxcy Bolton. In 1968 while serving as a Florida vice president of the National Organization for Women, Bolton started a campaign to stop naming hurricanes exclusively after women (a practice that began in 1953). As Dolin writes, Bolton was infuriated that female-named hurricanes were described in the press using misogynistic terms like “treacherous,” “witchlike” and “sluts.”

“She felt it was downright insulting to have women’s names associated with a horrific meteorological event,” Dolin says. “It really bothered her.” 

Bolton suggested instead that hurricanes be named after birds or even US senators, because “they delight in having things named after them.” For almost a decade the National Weather Service ignored her, until Juanita Kreps, the US commerce secretary under President Jimmy Carter (and the first woman to have the role), took up the cause. Finally in 1979 the World Meteorological Organization, the international body now responsible for naming Atlantic hurricanes, ceded to US pressure and agreed  to start alternating between male and female names (something Australia was already doing for its cyclones).

A worrisome future

The last chapter dives into the serious outlook for future hurricane seasons and how climate change could make what we’re experiencing in 2020 a regular occurrence. Higher sea levels will lead to more intense flooding of coastal areas, and warmer oceans will provide hurricanes with the heat energy that powers them. A warmer planet may also result in an outcome that’s just as dangerous: slower hurricanes that linger over coastal areas for days.

“I am concerned about the future and what kind of hurricanes we’ll be dealing with,” Dolin says. “The evidence is mounting that a warmer world is going to mean stronger and wetter hurricanes in the future.”

There’s much more in my interview with Dolin, so please watch the video above for the full story.

Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the “new normal.” There will always be change in our world, and we’ll be here to discuss how to navigate it all. 

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