Hurricanes are severe storm events that erupt over the ocean and gradually advance toward land. They produce powerful winds, torrential rain, sea level surges, floods, and tornadoes. Hurricanes can generate hazardous winds of up to 119 kilometers per hour (74 miles per hour), which wreaks destruction in far-inland areas.
Image by NASA
How do Hurricanes Form?
The precursors to hurricanes begin with rain clouds forming over warm ocean waters, also called tropical disturbances. These systems have maximum sustained surface winds of less than 39 miles per hour (mph). Beyond 39 miles per hour (mph), it becomes a tropical storm. Finally, if the maximum sustained winds of the storm are 74 mph or higher, it is considered a hurricane.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale assigns a hurricane a rating based on a storm's maximum sustained winds. It has a category from 1 to 5. The possibility for extreme consequences increases with the higher hurricane category. The image below shows the five different hurricane types or categories by NASA.
Image by NASA
Hurricane Impacts on the United States
Approximately two significant hurricanes make landfall in the United States every three years. In the last decade alone, the United States has faced over 40 hurricane impacts. Being sandwiched between two oceans, the country's land structure curves towards the southern tropical regions which creates a "funneling" effect, giving the U.S. a distinctive system of unpredictable weather events. This also explains why the nation experiences frequent hurricanes, floods, heat waves, droughts, and other natural calamities.
Hurricane Ian in Florida– September 2022
According to NOAA data, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana have been the target for more than 80% of the 300 hurricanes that have made direct landfall along the U.S. coastline since 1851. While hurricanes strike Florida as many times as the next-most-vulnerable state, the Sunshine State is the most hit state (120 hurricanes) post the introduction of the Saffir-Simpson wind scale. Even before the state's full recovery from 2017 Hurricane Irma, another hurricane slammed southern Florida on September 28, 2022.
A category 4 storm Hurricane Ian triggered devastating floods and knocked out power for around 2.5 million Floridians. The storm first tore through western Cuba before spreading across Florida. The violent storm terrorized millions of people for the majority of the week as it tore through Florida from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. And from there, it gathered plenty of force to set a full-blown attack on South Carolina.
The extensive damages of Hurricane Ian have left organizations and analysts calculating the financial losses. Disaster modeling company Karen Clark & Co. estimates the cost of the loss at over $100 billion in damages, including damages from privately insured insurance policies. Possibly making Hurricane Ian the fourth most expensive storm in U.S. history. Further, according to RBC Capital Markets analysts, Hurricane Ian may well cause up to $40 billion in property damage claims and substantially higher overall economic damages.
Time and again, research and analyses keep pointing us to one conclusion— climate change is rapidly exacerbating the frequency and severity of natural disasters in the U.S. and worldwide. A study evaluating the risks associated with both wind and storm surges predicts that hurricanes and their damages will only get worse over the next decades owing to climate change. According to the author, "In combination, climate change and coastal development will cause hurricane damage to increase faster than the U.S. economy is expected to grow. In addition, we find that the number of people facing substantial expected damage will, on average, increase more than eight-fold over the next 60 years." The risk of hurricanes is rising fast, and even though there has already been considerable harm caused by climate change, the worst disruptions are still avoidable. The only option is for our economy to rapidly decarbonize and for society to become more alert in preventing and mitigating the looming risks.
Hurricanes are life-threatening and can inflict significant damage. If you live in a hurricane-prone location, take steps to prepare.