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Climate & Environment

Hurricanes that cause major destruction are becoming more frequent, study says

Hurricane Katrina
In 2005, floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina inundate New Orleans. The most destructive U.S. hurricanes are increasing in frequency, a new study says.
(David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Big, destructive hurricanes are hitting the U.S. three times more frequently than they did a century ago, according to a new study.

Experts generally measure a hurricane’s destruction by adding up how much damage it did to people and cities. That can overlook storms that are powerful but hit only sparsely populated areas.

A Danish research team came up with a new measurement that looked at just how big and strong the hurricane was, not the dollar value of the damage it caused. They call their measurement “area of total destruction.”

“It’s the most damaging ones that are increasing the most,” said study lead author Aslak Grinsted, a climate scientist at the University of Copenhagen. “This is exactly what you would expect with climate models.”

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Climate scientists have predicted — and shown — that global warming is creating more extreme weather and storms. That’s because the burning of fossil fuels leads to higher temperatures in the oceans and the atmosphere.

Looking at 247 hurricanes that hit the U.S. since 1900, Grinsted and his colleagues found the top 10% of hurricanes — those with an area of total devastation of more than 467 square miles — are happening 3.3 times more frequently, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Eight of the 20 storms with the highest area of total destruction since 1900 have happened in the last 16 years. That proportion is much higher than would be expected to occur by random chance, Grinsted said.

Two storms stood out from the rest: 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, with an area of total destruction of 4,570 square miles, and 2005’s Katrina, at 2,942 square miles. The average was 159 square miles — which means Harvey’s destructive footprint was 30 times larger than average.

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“Their result is consistent with expected changes in the proportion of the strongest hurricanes and is also consistent with the increased frequency of very slow-moving storms that make landfall in the U.S.,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane scientist Jim Kossin, who was not part of the research.

Other experts weren’t convinced, however. Colorado State University hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach said his review of the most powerful storms to hit the U.S., using barometric pressure, showed no increase.


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