Cyclones and climate change: Connecting the dots

graph_anatomy of a hurricane
Updated 27 August 2017

Cyclones and climate change: Connecting the dots

PARIS: Scientists freely acknowledge they do not know everything about how global warming affects hurricanes like the one pummeling southeast Texas.
But what they do know is enough to keep them up at night.
The amplifying impact of sea level rise, warming oceans, and hotter air — all incontrovertible consequences of climate change — is basic physics, they say.
Likewise accelerated shifts in intensity, such as the sudden strengthening that turned Harvey from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane — on a scale of 5 — just as it made landfall Friday.
What is missing is a detailed track record of hurricanes past, the kind of decades-long log of measurements that climate scientists need to discern the fingerprint of human influence.
Starting in the 1970s, satellite data allowed for a better tally, but even that was not enough.
“It is awfully difficult to see climate change in historical data so far because hurricanes are fairly rare,” Kerry Emmanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT in Boston, told AFP.
Experts, in other words, do not disagree on the potential of manmade global warming to magnify the destructive power of the tropical storms known variously around the world as cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons.
Rather, they are confounded — for now — by a lack of information.
“Just because the data don’t allow for unambiguous detection yet, doesn’t mean that the changes haven’t been occurring,” noted James Kossin, a scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Weather and Climate in Madison, Wisconsin.
Kossin figured out that cyclones have drifted poleward in their respective hemispheres over the last three decades, a finding hailed by other hurricane gurus as the most unambiguous evidence so far that global warming has already had a direct impact.
When it comes to cyclones and climate change, there are many points of near “universal agreement,” said Emanuel.
One is the consequence of rising seas.
“The most lethal aspect of hurricanes — wherever they occur in the world — is storm surge,” he said in an interview.
“It is physically the same phenomenon as a tsunami, except that it is excited by wind rather than a sea floor shaken by an earthquake.”
If Hurricane Sandy — which caused $50 billion in damage — had happened a century earlier, it probably would not have flooded lower Manhattan because sea level was about 30 centimeters (a foot) lower, he pointed out.
Global warming is likely to add roughly a meter to the global watermark by century’s end, according to recently revised estimates.
“The surge from these storms will be more devastating — higher and more penetrating,” said James Elsner, an atmospheric scientists and hurricane expert at Florida State University.
A second point of consensus is that hurricanes will hold more water, raising the threat of lethal and destructive flooding.
“We calculate that 1 degree Celsius of warming translates into a 7 percent increase in humidity in the atmosphere,” said French scientist Valerie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The US National Hurricane Center predicts that Harvey could dump more than 40 inches by the time skies clear.
Hurricane Mitch — the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record — left some 19,000 dead in Central America, “all from fresh-water flooding,” noted Emanuel.
“The irony is that hurricanes are known for wind, yet wind is third on the list of lethal aspects,” after storm surges and flooding caused by rain.
Earlier this year, Emanuel published a study pointing to yet another worrying climate “signal” emerging from the noise of raw data.
Scientists have made great progress in anticipating the path a storm will follow, extending their predictive powers from a day or two to about a week.
At the same time they have made scant headway in forecasting hurricane strength.
“The thing that keeps forecasters up at night is the prospect that a storm will rapidly gain strength just before it hits land,” Emanuel said, citing Harvey as an example.
In 2015, Hurricane Patricia in the Pacific Ocean intensified more rapidly — “It just went ‘Boom!’” — than any storm on record.
“Global warming can accentuate that sudden acceleration in intensity,” Emanuel said.
A finding oft cited as evidence that the jury is still out on whether climate change will boost cyclones is that scientists do not know if there will be more or fewer such storms in the future.
But even if there are fewer, which seems likely, that misses the point, the experts interviewed agreed.
Since 1971, tropical cyclones have claimed about 470,000 lives and caused some $700 billion in damages globally, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.
But most of that death and destruction is attributable to a relative handful of storms. Just three, for example, have caused well over half of all storm-related deaths in the US since 1900.
So even if the number of mostly smaller storms diminishes, that’s not what counts.
“The idea of ‘fewer but stronger’ seems to be the fingerprint of climate change on tropical cyclones,” Elsner concluded.


Thai court strips opposition frontman of MP status

Updated 7 min 51 sec ago

Thai court strips opposition frontman of MP status

  • Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s removal means the Election Commission could bring criminal charges that carry serious penalties
  • Thanathorn remained defiant following the verdict

BANGKOK: The billionaire frontman of Thailand’s anti-military bloc was stripped of his MP status on Wednesday over a media shareholding case, a court ruling that could lead to him being banned from politics and jailed for up to 10 years.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his upstart Future Forward party rode a youth-propelled wave in March elections making it the third largest in the country and alarming the establishment.

The outspoken 40-year-old connected with Thais weary of the army’s role in Thailand’s turbulent politics, which has seen at least 12 coups since 1932.

But since the vote he has battled legal cases and was suspended from parliament earlier this year after accusations he held shares in a media company when he registered as a candidate.

He denied the charges and said they are politically motivated, but judges at the constitutional court ruled against him on Wednesday, calling his evidence “suspicious” and revoking his MP status.

His removal means the Election Commission could bring criminal charges that carry serious penalties — including a political ban and imprisonment.

It also deals a gut punch to his party, which won devoted fans among millennials after calling for the military to be purged from politics, military conscription to be ended and defense spending slashed.

Thanathorn has repeatedly insisted the 675,000 shares he held in V-Luck Media were sold to his mother on January 8 — weeks before he registered to run as a candidate.

But the court rejected the claim, saying there was no “official proof” that the transfer took place on that day.

Thanathorn remained defiant following the verdict, telling reporters outside the court that the judges had given “more weight to their presumptions” instead of the evidence he provided.

He assured dozens of his supporters waving the party’s signature orange flags that he has not given up and will remain the party leader.

“Future Forward’s journey has not yet ended,” he said.

Thai politics has been marked by short-lived civilian governments, bloody street protests, and coups by an arch-royalist military.

Thanathorn’s removal from parliament was a “foregone conclusion” the minute his ultra-popular party made massive strides in the election, said political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University.

“What he and his party stood for is antithetical to the established centers of power in Thailand,” he said.

“He’s not the first and he won’t be the last.”

The same court had disbanded a different anti-military opposition party linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra right before the March vote.

The poll — held after nearly five years of junta rule — saw coup leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha voted in as civilian premier with the help of junta-appointed senators.

But Wednesday’s ruling was an indication that despite elections, “Thai authorities are not ready for an open and free democracy,” said Charles Santiago, chair of ASEAN parliamentarians for Human Rights, in a statement.

The attempts to silence Future Forward were due to its threat to status quo, he added.

Hours after the court’s verdict, the party announced that Thanathorn would join a public campaign to end military conscription at a popular downtown Bangkok mall.

Future Forward has also come under fire for being a rare voice of criticism against Thailand’s royalist establishment.

The monarchy, one of the world’s richest and headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, is at the apex of Thai power.

Last month, 70 Future Forward MPs voted against a royal decree transferring two key army units to the direct control of the king — an unprecedented political objection to a royal command.

The decree still passed parliament with an overwhelming majority.