As the East Coast prepares for a possible Hurricane Joaquin landfall, experts warn that its intensity and potential for destruction are exacerbated by climate change.
Joaquin, which strengthened into a dangerous Category 4 hurricane on Thursday and battered sparsely populated Bahamian islands, will strengthen in the next 12 to 24 hours, the National Hurricane Center reported. Its current path has it nearing North Carolina and Virginia on Sunday or Monday, but mid-Atlantic and Northeast states will experience minor to moderate flooding over the weekend regardless of whether the hurricane makes landfall.
Joaquin's quickly progressing strength can be tied to unprecedented sea surface temperatures in the hurricane's vicinity, Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told The Huffington Post.
"Joaquin has been traveling over a record-warm ocean surface and undoubtedly that has contributed to its rapid intensification," he said. "In a very basic sense, warmer ocean surface temperatures mean there is more energy available to strengthen these storms. So we expect more intense hurricanes in general in a warmer world."
A map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the temperatures in Joaquin's path at a "record warmest."
Climate Nexus, an organization dedicated to clean energy solutions, warned that because oceans expand as they absorb heat, that gives Joaquin "a higher platform from which to run up onto land" and increases the threat of severe flooding. The sea level in the New York Harbor, it noted, has risen nearly a foot over the last century.
"There is not uncertainty about sea level rise," RAND researcher Jordan Fischbach told Time in August. "As we get more sea level rise, these large storm events will with certainty damage ... assets and people."
Because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture in the air, Climate Nexus noted, hurricanes are loaded with more potential for destructive rainfall.
Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, explained the phenomenon last month while discussing recent flooding in Utah and Arizona.
"When the right weather system comes along," he told HuffPost, "that weather system can be thought of as a device for reaching out -- quite a ways at times -- and grabbing the available moisture and bringing it in and dumping it down."
Mann warned it's likely we'll be seeing more hurricanes of Joaquin's strength.
"Based on our work, climate change is already leading to both more intense and larger hurricanes than before," he said. "That translates to more frequent Sandy-like storm surges for New York and elsewhere."
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