Four is the New Two

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Extreme weather

Have you noticed how many songs include references to storms? Mick Jagger boasts he was “born in a crossfire hurricane,” which is all I need to hear to know it’s time to turn up the volume. And the Scorpions sing that they’ll “rock you like a hurricane”…and I’m pretty sure they think that’s a good thing. And Neil Young sings that his love is Like a Hurricane.

While hurricanes clearly make great metaphors for strong emotions, in real life hurricanes are not something to take lightly. Not a century ago, and certainly not now.

As we enter into the official start of hurricane season, let’s turn our iPods off for a minute to take note of how hurricane intensity has shifted in the last several decades.

In 1975, most hurricanes topped out at a Category one or two, with about 20% building to a Category four or five. But today, the proportion of devastating Category four or five hurricanes has roughly doubled. They are now about as common as the easier-to-deal-with Category one or two storms. And stronger storms kill more people and devastate coastal communities. Check out the graph below from new research by Holland and Bruyere (2012).

So, what’s behind this increase in severe hurricanes? While the reasons behind the uptick in the past 35 years is unsettled, what we do know is that the global warming caused by our carbon-pollution-loaded atmosphere is creating a broad trend of heavier rains, droughts and heat waves and the potential for more erratic and severe extreme weather events, like category 4 or 5 hurricanes. Global warming is the climate on steroids. And, scientists believe this extreme weather trend will increase in severity and volatility going forward

The good news is that there are steps we can take to help make our communities safer from the increasing number and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes.

Use technology to predict flooding, and then plan for it: In Long Island, Connecticut and other at-risk coastal U.S. states, we are sharing our coastal resilience tool to reveal potential problems from flooding and storm surges, and working with local communities to use nature to protect homes, people and infrastructure. And we are sharing this science at the highest levels of national and international disaster prevention agencies.

Use nature to help protect us: Billions of dollars are being spent at all levels of government to reduce risks to coastal cities and towns. But the answer doesn’t lie solely with sea walls and other concrete “gray” solutions. Nature – oyster and coral reefs, salt marshes, mangroves and more – can provide cost effective protection to our communities by absorbing the impacts from storms and rising waters. As an example, check out the man-made oyster reefs off the coast of Grand Isle, Louisiana in the picture below.

man-made oyster reefs off the coast of Grand Isle, Louisiana can help protect people and properties from storm surge

Through our extensive coastal restoration work, The Nature Conservancy is demonstrating how nature can help communities adapt to today’s – and tomorrow’s – impacts, and showing the places where “green” solutions can be used in place of the gray ones. And we need your help!

Speak up in support of the RESTORE Act: this U.S. legislation would allocate fines from the BP oil spill toward protecting and restoring coastal habitats across five Gulf states.

Before you go back to your iPod, here’s my top five hurricane playlist. What’s on yours?

  1. Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Rolling Stones
  2. When You Were Young, The Killers
  3. Like a Hurricane, Neil Young
  4. Bad Moon Rising, Credence Clearwater Revival
  5. Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season, Jimmy Buffett

Frank Lowenstein is the Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader for The Nature Conservancy

Top photo by Flickr user alpoma (Hurricane Rita). Used under a Creative Commons license.

Inset photo courtesy of Kerry Crisley/TNC

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Comments (1)

  • Caroline Webb


    Where is the Holland and Bruyere 2012 research paper please? You must provide links to articles you are using to do this kind of communication to the public. Surely I am making an elementary point? I have tried to find anything published by those people and have not yet found it. It was not on the first page of Google using the names as above.


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