Hazel came ashore as a category 4 hurricane in 1954 at approximately the same place as the recent hurricane Florence. Hazel destroyed 15,000 houses in North Carolina and damaged an additional 39,000. Hazel claimed the lives of 95 U.S. citizens, and then it moved north and took the lives of 81 Canadians, mostly because of flooding in Canada.
A hurricane struck the Florida Keys on Labor Day 1935. There were no wind speed instruments available to record the velocity of the winds, but Dr. Ben Brotemarkle, Executive Director of the Florida Historical Society, wrote in an August 31, 2015, article for USA Today that wind speeds reached an estimated 225 miles per hour. The estimate is based on the force required to cause the level of destruction that occurred.
The 2017 Hurricane Harvey dumped 60 inches of rain in the Houston area, the greatest amount for a single storm in U.S. recorded history. Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City subway tunnels. Hurricane Katrina inundated 80 percent of New Orleans.
In 1954, my friends and I frequented the beach at Surf City, NC, just north of Wilmington, NC. My memory has undoubtedly faded, but I don’t recall houses or businesses, just sand and surf. The 2010 U.S. census listed the population of Surf City at 1800 people. In 1935, there were approximately 1000 people on the Florida Keys. Today, the population is 80,000. According to the news media, 890,000 people lost electricity as a result of hurricane Florence. Is that because of the severity of the storm, or is it because of the way we design out electrical distribution system, or is it because of where we live?
Some writers are suggesting that climate change is increasing the potential damage from hurricanes. Hurricanes are not a scientific way to measure climate change, at least, not yet. But concerned planners and scientists are thinking about vulnerability from sea level rise and violent storms that originate at sea. Defense Department planners think about global destabilization if climate change and rising sea level force mass migration. We have built a vast amount of infrastructure on vulnerable coasts, and other countries have the same problem. Miami, FL, and, New Orleans, LA, are going to be challenged if sea level rises. Jakarta, Indonesia, a city of an estimated 28 million people, is sinking below sea level. Orrin Pilkey, Duke University Professor Emeritus of Earth and Ocean Sciences, advocates moving away from vulnerable coastlines. Most large cities will probably try everything, except moving, to protect their real estate and citizens from encroaching seas and violent storms.
The Spanish attempted to settle Pensacola, FL, in 1559. That expedition had some 1500 people and several sailing ships full of supplies. The settlers went ashore to explore and select a site for their settlement. They left their supplies on the ships while they scouted the area. While they were ashore, a hurricane struck and destroyed several ships and their supplies. The survivors abandoned their intended settlement. Were it not for a hurricane, you might be reading this in Spanish.
In the atmosphere above the earth there is a band of water vapor and gases including carbon dioxide and methane. Incoming sunlight passes through the band and strikes the earth. Some of the sunlight (solar energy) that strikes the earth is reflected back into space but at a different wave length than incoming sunlight. The water vapor and gases in the atmosphere trap a significant part of the reflected (outbound) solar energy. If that did not happen, the temperature where you are would be zero degrees Fahrenheit. The existence of the water vapor and gases make life possible on our planet. Most of that trapped heat is stored in ocean water. Warm ocean water evaporates, rises into the sky and falls to earth as rain or snow. The warmer the water, the greater the evaporation rate and subsequent rainfall. Scientific instruments installed at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii have recorded a 25 percent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the past 60 years. Scientists believe the increased carbon dioxide in the atmospheric gas band traps additional solar energy which deposits in the oceans as heat. The result is more rainfall someplace.
Regardless of whether the magnitude of the storms is caused by climate change or because the climate hasn’t changed, we need to develop protective measures.
Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.