Storms, hurricanes, and climate change, oh my!

By Rachel M. Gregg

For those of you who have heard or read that the links made between climate change and extreme storms like Hurricane Irene are tenuous at best, I'd encourage you to check out the piece Joseph Romm, editor of Climate Progress, wrote the other day over at Grist: Climate change makes hurricanes like Irene more destructive. He discusses the typical back-and-forth about climate change (or, dare we say "global warming") that comes with an event like Hurricane Irene and suggests that the media plays a role in the confusion by asking the wrong questions. He cites a Climate Central post:
The question: Is this weather disaster caused by climate change?
Wrong question.
Here's the right question: Is climate change making this storm worse than it would have been otherwise?
Answer: Absolutely.
In Climate Savvy, Drs. Lara Hansen and Jennie Hoffman touch on this question:
The science surrounding the effect of climate change on hurricane or cyclone frequency and intensity is not yet clear, and the nature of historical trends is controversial due to the patchy nature of storm detection prior to the advent of global satellite coverage in the 1970s. From a theoretical standpoint, the expected effect of climate change on storm frequency and intensity depends on the relative importance of various elements of the climate system, such as absolute sea surface temperature, relative sea surface temperature across ocean basins, lower stratospheric temperature, and wind shear. If absolute sea surface temperature alone is the primary determinant of storm frequency and intensity, we can expect an unprecedented increase in storminess. If wind shear is more important, some regions would see a decline in storm intensity and frequency. Recent models incorporating a variety of factors and climate models suggest an overall trend toward fewer but more intense storms, with more rain carried by each storm.

Regardless of long-term trends in storm frequency and intensity, sea level rise will increase flooding and erosion risk along coasts. The increase in heavy development along the world's coastlines as well as increasing deforestation along vulnerable hillsides greatly increases the vulnerability of both human and natural communities to large storm events.
Like Elizabeth Kolbert writes over on The New Yorker site, "[we] can comfort ourselves by saying that this particular storm was not necessarily caused by global warming. Or we can acknowledge the truth, which is that we are making the world a more dangerous place and, what’s more, that we know it."