Hurricanes, climate change and the costs of damage

When I was living in Houston, Texas, a hurricane once hit the city and smashed every window in the skyscrapers downtown. Last week, members of my family living there fled from hurricane Rita, with only a few belongings and important papers. They are back now, with Houston mercifully spared. But the devastation caused by Katherina in New Orleans, a city I know well, is unprecedented and beyond belief. One question that keeps popping up is whether climate change is affecting hurricanes in some way or other. There is no clear proof yet of that. But there are some scientists who say the intense hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 are indeed linked to global warming. In simple terms, tropical cyclones (called hurricanes in the US) form when heat from the ocean is released into the atmosphere. How warm the sea surface gets and how high into the atmosphere the evaporated water rises regulates the speed of hurricane winds. With global warming, this speed could increase and hurricanes would become more intense.

Ocean currents and atmospheric temperature go through natural cycles which result in ups and downs in hurricane numbers. These have nothing to do with global warming other researchers say. However, a landmark paper I read last month in the prestigious science journal Nature, reports the first evidence that today's hurricanes are more powerful than those of 30 years ago. The authors link this to global warming.

More evidence presented in a new paper published this month in another well known journal, Science, indicates that the number of large hurricanes seems to have increased since 1970, while smaller hurricanes have become less common. The results show that there is actually an increase in the number of intense storms.

The scientific debate over whether global warming leads to more destructive hurricanes continues, but I think the consequences of more powerful hurricanes are of great concern. Obviously the greatest impact will be on low-lying areas and small island states. Seychelles is in danger. The problems are exacerbated as more people and more expensive infrastructure are established on coastal zones. Storm damage becomes costlier because the houses and infrastructure are larger, more numerous and more elaborate than before.

What should we do? There are many responses but we can focus on a few in Seychelles. We know from experience that insurance policies, building codes and engineering works such as drainage all had an impact on how we coped with the costs of storm and flood damage following the Tsunami. These should be re-examined and enhanced since improvements could ease much suffering in the future.

By Nirmal Jivan Shah, published on the People Newspaper, Seychelles

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