U.S. Coasts Increasingly Vulnerable to Hurricanes due to Global Warming

Global Warming Must Be Factored Into Hurricane and Coastal Planning: Over This Century, Windspeeds Could Increase 13 Percent and Rainfall Could Increase 31 Percent

08-20-2009 // Aileo Weinmann

WASHINGTON, DC -- While Florida and Gulf Coast residents bear the brunt of Tropical Storm Fay, the latest science connecting hurricanes and global warming suggests more is yet to come: tropical storms are likely to bring higher wind speeds, more precipitation, and bigger storm surge in the coming decades.

"As so many grapple with Tropical Storm Fay's landfall in the United States, our thoughts and prayers are with those in harm's way," said Dr. Amanda Staudt, climate scientist, National Wildlife Federation.

"Although no single weather event can be attributed to global warming, it's critical to understand that a warming climate is supplying the very conditions that fuel the strongest storms," Dr. Staudt said. "The big picture is that global warming is putting hurricanes on steroids. The latest science paints an alarming picture about what global warming has in store for the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic Coasts: stronger hurricanes, heavier rainfall, and rising sea level."

Increasing Vulnerability to Hurricanes: Global Warming's Wake-Up Call for the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic Coasts details how:

  • Hurricanes Are Getting Stronger As Oceans Warm;
  • More Stormy Weather Lies Ahead;
  • ncreasing Coastal Population and Development Puts People in Harm's Way;
  • Hurricanes Affect Wildlife;
  • Wetlands Are The First Line of Defense Against Hurricanes; and
  • To Reduce Risks and Prepare for Future Hurricanes

The destructive potential of tropical storms in the North Atlantic has increased by about 50 percent since the 1970s. This increase, which primarily reflects longer storm lifetimes and greater storm intensities, is correlated with an increase of 0.9-1.3°F in sea surface temperatures in the main development area for storms in the North Atlantic. In addition, the heights of big waves along the eastern United States have increased by 20 percent during hurricane season since the late 1970s, augmenting the overall storm-related hazards for coastal communities and habitats.

Tropical storms are likely to bring higher wind speeds, more precipitation, and bigger storm surge in the coming decades. If global warming pollution continues unabated over the next century, tropical sea surface temperatures could increase another 3° Fahrenheit—three times the warming to date. Warming of the North Atlantic along with other climate changes underway point to increasing risks associated with hurricanes.

It has long been known that coastal wetlands and barrier islands serve an important role in absorbing the destructive force of hurricanes, acting as the first line of defense. In particular, wetlands can reduce the amplitude of storm surge by inhibiting the formation and propagation of waves. Scientists have estimated that every mile of wetlands can trim three to nine inches off of a storm surge. However, wetland loss has been a persistent problem along the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and will only be exacerbated by increasing sea level.

Global warming presents new challenges for managing America's coastal resources, especially along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic seaboard. "We must account for increasing storm activity and rising sea level when managing our coasts, especially by restoring and protecting coastal wetlands, lowlands, and barrier islands that provide crucial natural levees," Dr. Staudt said. "To prevent the worst impacts of climate change and limit the impacts on communities and wildlife, we must reduce global warming pollution."

National Wildlife Federation is America's conservation organization inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future.

Immediate Release: August 20, 2008

Contact: Aileo Weinmann, communications manager, 202-797-6801, weinmanna@nwf.org

Related Resources
  • Supporting Document
    Increasing Vulnerability to Hurricanes(pdf)

    We must take global warming into account as we prepare for future hurricanes and manage our coasts, from carefully siting new construction or reconstruction to account for rising sea level and increasing flood risks to revising building codes to account for greater wind speed..

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