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Living With Climate Change: Nicole is U.S.’s first November hurricane in 40 years — why climate change extends hurricane season

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Nicole has weakened to a tropical storm after making landfall along the East Coast of Florida early Thursday as a Category 1 hurricane, flooding coastal buildings and knocking out power to thousands, including those living inland. It was the first hurricane to hit the U.S. in November — the tail end of the typical tropical storm season — in nearly 40 years.

Read: Tropical Storm Nicole topples beachfront homes into ocean

The 2022 Atlantic hurricane season began on June 1 and comes to an end on November 30. With just a few weeks remaining, there is a 65% chance of an above-normal hurricane season this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This year was also marked by more backloaded storms after a relatively peaceful summer.

Climate change is leading to shifts in the number, reach and intensity of storms we’re only beginning to fully understand. And it means most Americans, investors and homeowners among them, need to better educate themselves on climate change and related storm risks.

How does climate change impact hurricanes?

For sure, scientists increasingly see unusual behaviors with hurricanes and other tropical storms. They’re still gathering data, but many link a “new normal” to warmer oceans that come with global warming.

The year 2020 wrapped with a record 30 named hurricanes, and 2021 produced 21 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater), including seven hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or greater), of which four were major hurricanes (winds of 111 mph or greater). Those back-to-back years marked the first time on record that two consecutive hurricane seasons exhausted the list of 21 storm names.

“ ‘We are seeing more and more tropical cyclones become category three, four and five. So in reality,yes, we’re seeing that change every season in the last several years.”

— NASA

Nicole sent multiple homes toppling into the Atlantic Ocean Thursday and threatened a row of high-rise condominiums in places where the much-stronger and costlier Hurricane Ian washed away sea walls and other protections only weeks ago. Nicole only hit Cat 1, but because it came so closely on the heels of Ian, high-population-state Florida was feeling particularly vulnerable.

It’s not just the number of storms that matter, but also their punch.

“The warmer the water, the stronger and the more energy a system is going to have and it’s going to increase in intensity. So, are hurricanes getting stronger? The answer to that will be yes,” say NASA scientists, in this explainer.

“We are seeing more and more tropical cyclones become category three, four and five,” they said. “So in reality,yes, we’re seeing that change every season in the last several years.”

Here are the hurricane categories explained.

As the burning of oil
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 send the bulk of carbon and other emissions into the atmosphere, 2021 was the world’s sixth-warmest year on record. Both NASA and NOAA affirm 2022 will likely rank in the top 10 warmest years on record. And closer to the ground? Land and ocean temperatures are 0.84°C (1.51°F) above the 20th century average, by some measures. 

Need evidence of the hurricane changes we’re seeing?

Take Ian, for instance. It was a different storm in several ways that caught scientists’ attention. For one thing, Ian was much larger, when talking about the miles it spanned when it hit, than another notable storm, 2004’s Charley. As Weather Channel hurricane expert Rick Knabb pointed out on Twitter, the entire span of Hurricane Charley’s “wind field” could fit inside Ian’s 35-mile-wide eye.

It used to be rare for storms to keep strengthening until landfall. But that’s no longer the case over the past few years, and some studies show that this is an alarming sign of climate change. Warming ocean temperatures and abundant atmospheric moisture — both factors that climate change enhances — keep fueling powerful hurricanes to the point that typical jet streams can’t knock down the storms’ speed and velocity near land.

Also see: I’m moving to Florida to be near my grandchildren. My daughter wants me to build a $150,000 addition to her house. Should I do it?

 Weather (short term) and climate (longer term) are two different factors. Confusing weather, which can reach extremes, with climate has long been fuel for climate-change deniers. Where the two intersect is what matters. 

Studies show that warming air and ocean temperatures are increasing the odds and severity of heavy precipitation events. That leads to changes in hurricanes that are making them more powerful and potentially more damaging. Specifically, for every 1°C (1.8°F) increase in temperatures, the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture.

Related: The 10 most expensive climate-change disasters of 2021 cost $170 billion — and this U.S. storm was No. 1

Certainly, there are other factors at work. A lengthy list of impacts that led to a record number of 2020 storms, and a hearty follow-up the next year, are still in play this year in addition to human-caused climate change: the natural climate event La Niña and the Gulf of Mexico’s deep hot Loop Current, increased storminess in Africa, cleaner skies, a multi-decade active storm cycle and continued property development along already popular coasts.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the National Hurricane Center are considering advancing the start date of hurricane season to May 15. And earlier awareness could bring better preparation.

While the storm intensity data has accumulated, it’s not yet clear that climate change is causing tropical systems to occur earlier. So for now the experts are waiting on redefining the June-November hurricane season.

Don’t miss: Homeowners can check a property’s flood, heat and wildfire risk for free with this high-powered app

Ask tougher questions of real estate and insurance agents

Online real-estate search site Redfin found that from 2016 to 2020, more people moved to high-risk natural disaster areas such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada, than to low risk areas, drawn by cheaper housing, jobs, and warm weather. The populations of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, all in the line of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, are growing faster than the national average.

Don’t miss: Homeowners can check a property’s flood, heat and wildfire risk for free with this high-powered app

The First Street Foundation finds that 14.6 million properties across the country are at substantial risk of flooding, with 5.9 million of them not currently in a designated Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain, an area that has a 1% or greater chance of flooding in a single year.

On the East Coast, new homes are being built two to three times faster than average in areas vulnerable to flooding. Since Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City 10 years ago, 225 permits have been issued for new apartment buildings in flood zones, the Columbia University Climate School says in an analysis.

Read: Hurricane Sandy: 10 lessons learned 10 years after the deadly superstorm

The real estate and insurance industries, and in particular, their customers, are faced with the need for increased awareness and extra budgeting around climate change. Flood insurance can be an expensive tack-on to a regular homeowner’s policy, and private-sector policies are limited. The government-run FEMA flood insurance program has undergone an update, but many insurance experts still see its maps missing the mark.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian likely caused more than $50 billion in damages, economists say. It also dinged overall U.S. economic output.

Read: A retirement safe from climate change? Ask the tough questions about real estate and property insurance

“Multi-peril” events are also on the rise. For instance, Hurricane Ida, which cost more than $75 billion in economic losses, hit several U.S. states in late summer 2021. Ida was not limited to its coastal impact along the Gulf of Mexico. Its powerful remnants hit the populous Northeast, bringing costly flooding inland as well as tornadoes as far as Pennsylvania and other places.

Modern life means both that it is more efficient to warn people when severe weather approaches, allowing for property protection and flight to safety — but also that ever greater development along vulnerable coasts and in population clusters puts more lives and structures in the path of destruction. Plus, the reach of hurricanes can stretch beyond those states and cities that are typical targets. Increasingly, named storms blast routine hurricane states with flooding and more damage further and further inland.

Read more tips on preparing for hurricanes and their added flooding.

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