Every time there’s a new hurricane, us climate communicators feel a surge of motivation to jump in, do our jobs, and break down the links between climate change and the latest disaster. But in a historically quiet hurricane season like 2022, climate communicators still have work to do.
The 60-day period between Tropical Storm Colin’s demise on July 3 and Hurricane Danielle’s arrival on September 1 marks the longest hurricane free streak since 1999, the same summer when I was born. While heat waves, floods, wildfires, and other stories kept climate advocates busy this summer, the absence of hurricane talk was still noticeable. If every hurricane prompts a barrage of tweets and videos saying, “look guys, it’s climate change,” then climate communicators ought to have answers when the longest hurricane free streak of the 21st century hits.
To be clear, we do.
First, peak hurricane season is only just beginning. The height of the season comes between late August and October. For the sake of everyone living in the coastal Atlantic including many of my family and friends, I hope the hurricane season remains quiet. But unfortunately, looking at past years, that’s an unlikely proposition. It only takes one bad storm for our perception of the 2022 hurricane season to be completely turned on its head.
Second, climate scientists are aware of how climate change affects the severity of hurricanes, but the effects on the frequency of hurricanes remains in question. Climate change makes hurricanes worse by adding more heat energy, evaporating more water to create more rainfall, and rising sea levels to allow storms to inundate the land further. But these changes presuppose that a rotating storm is already brewing in the Atlantic. How climate change affects the process of getting a new storm started remains an unanswered question. It is entirely possible that climate change makes storms worse, but does not make them more frequent.
Third, there have been some unusual weather events this year to keep hurricanes at bay. A high pressure system called the Bermuda High has prevented winds from developing in the upper atmosphere, and a phenomenon called the Saharan Air Layer has led to dust from the Sahara Desert flying into the Caribbean affecting winds, cloud formation, and moisture. Climate change is far from the only driver of weather, and scientists have done a remarkable job in observing and analyzing all these different processes.
But I have not seen climate communicators rushing to push out this message.
I attribute this lack of coverage more to our busy schedules than anything else, but I worry what silence on the hurricane front says to the greater public. Would someone think we’re hypocritical if, after attributing every new storm to climate change, we ignore this hurricane free streak? Would someone think this hurricane season disproves climate change? Of course, natural variations like this one still happen on an anthropogenically warmed planet, but people might not know that. And we’re not telling them loudly enough.
Worse yet, I fear that only talking about climate change in the immediate aftermath of a major hurricane comes off as insensitive. By no means am I suggesting climate communicators stop delivering important facts about a storm in the subsequent days — understanding how a catastrophe fits into a larger issue is crucial information to deliver — but to do it only then may give the wrong impression. Yes, our world is a lot more reactionary than preventative, and sure, people might be more inspired to think about hurricanes after a bad one hits. But hurricane cleanups can take years. Hurricane preparedness is an ongoing effort. Cutting carbon emissions to prevent hurricanes from worsening in the future remains a high priority 365 days a year. It may not feel like it, but hurricanes are newsworthy each and every day, and perhaps it would benefit us to look at hurricanes from a less emotionally-charged place in a slow season than in the middle of an actual disaster.
As the smartest creatures on Earth, I believe humans are smart enough to address an issue even if it’s not directly in their face. Worsening hurricanes are one of the most damaging consequences of climate change. Now that there’s a historic hurricane story to tell, climate communicators have every reason to speak up.