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Climate change will intensify hurricanes in the Northeast, Yale study finds

Charles Krupa

Hurricanes and other tropical storms will intensify in the Northeast, according to a Yale University study. These storms, which typically originate close to the equator, could travel further north and south as the planet warms.

The study uses satellite imagery and computer simulations to add to the mounting evidence that the Earth’s climate is already changing and brings with it more extreme weather.

“With regards to tropical cyclones, a prediction was made in the 1980s, using classical thermodynamics, that hurricanes would get stronger as the climate warms,” said Josh Studholme, a Yale physicist and an author of the study.

His co-author, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, predicted decades ago that global warming would result in more intense storms — a prediction that has been validated in countless scientific papers since and observing recent storms, like hurricanes Henri, Elsa and the remnants of Ida last year.

“Our most robust predictions for hurricanes and climate change is that the sea level will rise. So even existing hurricanes will be more damaging for places on the coasts. And we also know that they're going to get, on average, stronger as the climate warms,” Studholme said. He noted that whether the actual number of hurricanes will increase due to climate change is still up for debate.

Hurricanes roam the planet

Tropical storms are strongest in warm waters, which is why hurricanes historically originate closer to the equator in tropical oceans.

“New York kind of sits kind of on the edge of the pre-industrial distribution of tropical cyclone activity. So, you know, without humans, hurricanes were already affecting that part of the world, but rarely,” Studholme said.

By the time the storm travels to the poles, Studholme said most are too weak to reach New York because of cooler waters. But as the climate warms, the water heats up. This opens a window for tropical cyclones to form and intensify in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states.

“As you get north of New York, so you go up into Connecticut, and up towards Boston, will experience hurricanes — in some cases for the first time ever and much more frequently,” he said. “And because, you know, these communities that haven't developed with that risk in mind, this presents a significant risk for them.”

Major cities in the Global North and South, including Tokyo and Beijing, will have to prepare for more frequent and intense hurricanes and typhoons, according to the study.

A Connecticut case study

"A lot of communities still don't perceive climate change as a great threat. The reality is that's just not the case. And what we know and can measure is that the climate is changing. It's having very real impacts here," said Anthony Allen, the associate director of ecological restoration with the environmental group Save the Sound.

For example, Allen said to look at Long Wharf, an especially vulnerable coastal community in New Haven.

City engineer Giovanni Zinn said the entire neighborhood, known to be rife with culture and food trucks, lies in a federal flood hazard zone. He said it’s a race against climate change.

“The max theoretical storm that we could get grows, right?” Zinn said. “I mean, and that's probably the thing that we have to plan for most, right? The worst day, and our worst day is getting worse.”

Long Wharf is among 320 climate resiliency projects that the Southern Connecticut Regional Framework for Coastal Resilience outlined in 2017 as priorities for federal and state funding that focuses on erosion prevention. New Haven has partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers to build up its coast.

“One of the biggest challenges we have as a coastal community, this water comes at us from essentially two directions, right? So, you've got the one everyone thinks about, which is sea level rise,” Zinn said. “Our official state of Connecticut forecast is up to 20 inches by 2050 — and then also more frequent, intense rain events.”

These heavy rains also flood inland neighborhoods, where old storm water infrastructure is overwhelmed.

The trouble with updating infrastructure and all of the climate resiliency projects is that they compete for the same state and federal funding, according to the environmental group Save the Sound. Long Wharf got a leg up for Army Corps activity because of its nearby Interstate-95, and the railyard for the Northeast Corridor.

“One of the problems that we have as a region, and as a state, is that we know we need to be thinking about and acting on the need for coastal resiliency,” said Allen of Save the Sound. “But it's been really hard to get them in and through the pipeline and part of that is accessing federal funding in a small state. ”

Last month, Connecticut borrowed almost $1 billion to pay for a slate of transportation and local climate resiliency projects. State Environmental Commissioner Katie Dykes called the projects necessary for Connecticut to protect its shoreline and to do the state’s part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030.

“We saw climate change really speeding up right here in Connecticut,” Dykes said. “We experienced torrential rainfalls that flooded streets, overwhelmed cars caused loss of life and loss of economic activity. And we know that these changes to our climate are only going to be worsening as the years go forward.”

Environmentalists hope that state bonding, and a recent wave of federal infrastructure spending, will be enough to strengthen the coast and its communities before the next big storm makes landfall.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.