Summer and fall 2017 saw an unusual string of record-breaking hurricanes pummel the U.S. Gulf Coast, eastern seaboard, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
Hurricane Harvey brought unbelievable floods to Houston. Irma, one of the two strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the northern Atlantic, wreaked havoc on Florida and many Caribbean islands. Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The destruction begs the question: Has climate change influenced these extreme events? Hurricanes can be difficult to decipher, but experts are gaining a sense of what our warming world might mean for monster storms in the U.S. and worldwide.
Many experts are confident that a warmer world will create stronger storms—and already is doing so. Since 1981 the maximum wind speed of the most powerful hurricanes has risen, according to research (pdf) by Jim Elsner, a climatologist at The Florida State University. That’s because higher ocean heat provides more energy for storms, fueling their intensity. Hurricane Patricia, in 2015, set the record at the time for top wind speed—215 miles per hour—in the north Atlantic. The next year Winston shattered records as the most intense cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere.