Climate Change or Natural Events?: The apparent increase in hurricanes and earthquakes

“The most effective way to reduce risk is for individuals to take on a greater role.” Does this suggest natural disasters are on the increase? 

The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1st to November 30th, keeps raging. Hurricanes during this season have been so frequent, the National Hurricane Centre has shifted from using people’s names to using letters of the Greek alphabet after depleting its list of storm names.

The U.S. state of Louisiana was recovering from Hurricane Laura when news of another imminent threat began to spread. Hurricane Delta, having formed in the western Caribbean, has already set the record of being the fastest storm to progress from tropical depression to a Category-4 hurricane in a mere 36 hours. 

On Wednesday 28th October, Hurricane Zeta made landfall in Cocodrie, Louisiana as a Category 2 hurricane. Upon impact, it had reached its peak intensity of 110mph and quickly battered the New Orleans-metro area with violent winds and heavy rainfall. In its wake, Zeta left more than 2.6 million people without electricity, flooded roads, savaged buildings, and left six US plus two Jamaican individuals dead. 

Hurricane Zeta took Louisiana by storm. (Image: Kathleen Flynn/Reuters)

Far from over, the 2020 season has already witnessed its 28th named storm. The record is now tied with 2005 for the greatest number of storms intensive enough to be named during a single hurricane season. 

Meanwhile, a 7.0 magnitude tremor rocked Turkey’s Aegean coast and the Greek island of Samos on Friday 30th October according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). It was felt as far away as Athens and Istanbul, approximately 846 miles and 679 miles from the Turkish city of Izmir respectively. Turkey calculated the magnitude to be lower at 6.6, but the quake demolished buildings, sparked tidal waves across areas of Turkey and Greece, and has claimed the lives of at least 64 people. 

Earthquakes typically occur at fault zones within the earth’s tectonic plates. When plates strike or slide against one another, the impact is generally unnoticeable. Over time, however, massive amounts of stress can build up between them. When built-up stress is released quickly, vibrations travel the earth’s interior and along its surface, sometimes causing extremely destructive and occasionally deadly earthquakes. 

Around 80% of earthquakes take place along the “Ring of Fire”, a 24,900-mile path along the Pacific Ocean populated by active volcanoes and distinguished by frequent earthquakes. Several tectonic plates, including the Indian-Australian, Pacific, Cocos, Philippine, Nazca, Juan de Fuc and North American plates, border its boundary. Earthquakes are more frequent in certain regions of the world because some countries, like India, sit directly upon the fault of two plates. 

The “Ring of Fire”. (Image: New York Post)

Typically originating as a tropical wave, an area of low air pressure that enhances thunderstorm activity, hurricanes generate energy from warm seas. To be classified as a hurricane and not a tropical depression, the storm must reach wind speeds of 74 mph. 

Hurricanes can only form in certain regions such as the Atlantic Ocean because they require several preconditions, including deep, warm water hotter than 27°C or 80°F, low wind shear, and a cooling atmosphere with altitude. Because of this, hurricanes and cyclones seldom form between 5 degrees North and 5 degrees South latitudes accordingly. Typically, hurricanes are driven westward by winds, caused by the Earth’s rotation. As a result, Europe rarely experiences hurricanes as intense as the Americas. 

There is scientific evidence to suggest that the increase in global warming across the past half-century has likely occurred due to anthropogenic activity, significantly the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. Several researchers are now beginning to question whether the apparent increase in natural disasters is a direct result of climate change. 

To judge whether hurricanes are increasing, researchers measure the number of storms per year and the strength of each storm. Since the start of the 20th century, there has been an increase in the frequency of named storms. For instance, in 1914, there was one tropical storm recorded. 1969 had 18, 1995 had 21, and 2019 experienced 20. 

Since, however, the number of hurricanes can vary from year to year, it is difficult to establish trends in their frequency and strength. Today, scientists use hurricane models to predict future trends and identify the factors propelling these trends. 

The models revealed that hurricanes might not be increasing in numbers, but there is a likelihood that hurricanes will have higher wind speeds and greater ferocity. Coupled with ocean warming, rising sea levels, and a growing coastal population, the destructive potential of hurricanes could become increasingly severe. 

Similarly, there is evidence to suggest human activity could be increasing the frequency of earthquakes. Scientists have determined heavy rainfall can influence earthquake activity, and earthquakes tend to follow wet hurricanes, such as that which occurred in Haiti in 2010. Current climate models specify evaporation will increase as the Earth’s water cycle intensifies. More intense and frequent storms will occur as a direct result of increased evaporation. In turn, areas affected by storms are at greater risk of higher rainfall. 

Man-made or natural, some researchers argue the consequences of natural disaster depend primarily upon the efficacy of governments and similar institutions. Does investing in government, education, and health decrease the risk of disaster-related deaths? A 2020 study conducted by Elizabeth Teenant at Cornell University found fewer disaster-related deaths occurred in countries that had effective national and local governments. According to Tennant, her results suggested: “That policies and programs to enhance institutional capacity and governance can support risk reduction from extreme weather events.” 

In the US, the federal government only intervenes if the local responders can not cope, or the catastrophe crosses borders. Approximately, 70% of the US firefighting force are trained volunteers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching has moved online for some firefighters, and therefore, has limited the effectiveness of their training.

Yet even in a pandemic, disasters still occur. As a result, experts have suggested personal preparation is the key to living in disaster-prone regions. To some extent, disaster researcher Mika McKinnon urges individuals to take their survival into their own hands. Emergency kits are paramount for those occupying disaster-prone areas.

Similarly, McKinnon says reporting overflowing riverbanks, or other possible disasters could increase evacuation efforts. McKinnon states “The most effective way to reduce risk is for individuals to take on a greater role.” 

Featured Image via The New York Times