Why melting Antarctic ice is making the Atlantic hurricane season worse : Short Wave Ice in Antarctica is melting really quickly because of climate change. That's driving sea level rise around the world, and the water is rising especially fast in the seaside city of Galveston, Texas — thousands of miles from Antarctica. Why do Antarctica and Texas have this counterintuitive relationship? And what does it mean for a $34 billion effort to protect the city from hurricanes?

Read more and see pictures and video from Antarctica here.

Why melting ice in Antarctica is making hurricanes worse in Texas

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1178892703/1200392766" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


KWONG: ...From NPR.

So Rebecca Hersher, the Atlantic hurricane season is upon us. It starts tomorrow, June 1.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Yes, it does. Yes, it does. And in honor of hurricane season, because so many Americans spend this part of the year vaguely concerned about whether a storm will come their way, we thought it would be good to talk about climate change and hurricanes, but in a new way - in a way we have never done before in this podcast.

KWONG: Indeed. And you've brought a lot of hurricane science to SHORT WAVE over the years. You've talked about how hurricanes are getting more powerful, rainier and even slowing down because of climate change. What are we focusing on today - on the eve of hurricane season 2023?

HERSHER: Hurricane season eve - we are traveling far, far away from where hurricanes are born, far from the tropics, far from the U.S. coast, to Antarctica.


KWONG: Whoa. What is that sound?

HERSHER: Yeah, that is a recording from underneath a melting glacier in Antarctica. That whistling sound is a seal. And what sounds like rumbling thunder - that is the sound of the ice cracking apart.


KWONG: This is some recording. This is it. I mean, this melting glacier in Antarctica, you said, has something to do with hurricanes.

HERSHER: Yes. In fact, this exact glacier is making it more difficult to protect people who live in Texas from hurricanes.

KWONG: OK. That is a far distance away. I am intrigued.

HERSHER: Yea, you're intrigued. That is the idea. Today on the show - how a melting glacier in Antarctica is complicating efforts to protect Texans - and the rest of us - from hurricanes. I'm climate reporter Rebecca Hersher.

KWONG: And I'm Emily Kwong. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: OK, Rebecca, where do we start with this story?

HERSHER: Let's start in Texas - in Galveston. Have you ever been to Galveston?

KWONG: I have not. I have not had the pleasure.

HERSHER: Well, you are missing out. It's very cool. It's on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. It's about an hour from Houston. They're connected by a channel of water. There are tons of ships that go up and down that channel. It's one of the biggest petrochemical corridors on the planet. Galveston also has a cruise terminal. It's got a university. It's a beach town. People have lived there for a long time.

JUNE COLLINS PULLIAM: So I'm June Collins Pulliam, and we are here in Galveston at our family home that's been here for about 120 years.

KWONG: Hundred and twenty years - that is a long time for a house to be standing.

HERSHER: Yeah. And it would be older, actually. June's family has been in Galveston since the end of the Civil War, but the house they originally built on this exact spot was destroyed in the great storm of 1900. We have firsthand accounts of what happened in that storm from oral histories. This is June's great aunt, Annie Smizer McCullough, who was in her early 20s when the storm hit.


ANNIE SMIZER MCCULLOUGH: Oh, it was a awful thing. You want me to tell you, but it's - no tongue can tell it.

HERSHER: And I should say this recording originally aired in an NPR radio documentary. The sound of wind and water in the background - that was added by producers.


SMIZER MCCULLOUGH: The wind was so strong, and those waves was coming, so - well, I don't guess you want to hear all of that.




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We want to hear it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We want to hear it.

SMIZER MCCULLOUGH: And the water was coming so fast. The wagon was getting so it was floating.

KWONG: Wow. That just sounds, honestly, kind of terrifying...

HERSHER: Oh, yeah.

KWONG: ...To have a storm like that hit your shore. So what happened to Annie? What happened to the family?

HERSHER: So she and her family survived, but the home and most of the city were destroyed in the hurricane and specifically were destroyed by the storm surge - this wall of water that the storm pushed onto the island. At least 6,000 people died in the storm. It's still the most deadly weather disaster in recorded U.S. history.

KWONG: Wow, that is a lot of people.

HERSHER: Yeah. But here's why I'm telling you about a storm that happened 120-plus years ago. It's not because of what happened during; it's because of what happened after. So engineers built a huge concrete wall, and they said it would hold back the ocean forever. There was a story in Scientific American that had all these exclamation points, and it said that the wall would protect the city for all time. I drove out to look at this wall with Kelly Burks-Copes from the Army Corps of Engineers.

KELLY BURKS-COPES: So this is 17 feet high.

HERSHER: It is 17 feet high and 10 miles long. It runs basically the length of the city.

KWONG: Holy - that is huge. That's a big wall.

HERSHER: Yeah. Yeah. This thing is massive. There's a four-lane road along the top.

BURKS-COPES: We're on the seawall. So the seawall is where the bulk of the condos are. This is where people come and stay in hotels. They walk across Seawall Boulevard, which is the road we're driving on. They drop down off of the 17-foot seawall - on stairs, not jumping (laughter) - and they go out to the beach. And...

HERSHER: But here's the problem with that wall. Because of climate change, Galveston has already experienced two feet of sea level rise. That is some of the fastest sea level rise on the planet. And it's accelerating, which means the wall is too small. It won't be enough if there's a really big hurricane that hits Galveston head-on.

KWONG: And that's because sea level rise means there's even more water for every hurricane's storm surge.

HERSHER: Exactly. Exactly. And the wall just wasn't built for these higher seas, although it's had a really good run, right? A hundred twenty years is nothing to sneeze at, especially since they didn't understand that human-caused climate change was already in motion when they built it.

KWONG: So what are they going to do now? How can we protect Galveston for another 100 years?

HERSHER: Well, that is where the melting glacier in Antarctica makes an unexpected appearance. In order to protect Galveston from future storms, they basically need a bigger wall, right? And ideally, before you build a bigger wall, you'd want to know - how quickly will sea levels rise in the future, and how much will they rise?

KWONG: Yeah, yeah - how much will it rise so you know how big to build the wall.

HERSHER: Exactly. Unfortunately, scientists don't know the answer to that question.

KWONG: They don't know how much sea levels will rise in Galveston a hundred years from now.

HERSHER: In Galveston or anywhere - there's a ton of uncertainty.


HERSHER: The most sophisticated estimates predict that, in the next century, sea levels in Galveston will rise at least two additional feet, but perhaps 10 feet or more.

KWONG: Ten feet or more, perhaps - that's a lot of uncertainty.

HERSHER: Yeah, it's a ton of uncertainty, partly because we don't know how quickly human greenhouse gas emissions will decrease. But there's also unfinished science about how giant pieces of ice react to warmer temperatures - like, the actual mechanics of how ice sheets disappear.

KWONG: That's fascinating. OK, tell me more about this unfinished science.

HERSHER: Yeah, this area is extremely active. Scientists are camping out on ice sheets, trying to understand how they're cracking and melting and moving.


HERSHER: These are scientists like Erin Pettit. She is the one who recorded that wild sound from the beginning of what was happening underneath a glacier in Antarctica. She and her team are on this glacier, and they're measuring giant cracks in the ice.

ERIN PETTIT: So they're getting longer by, you know, sometimes a mile a year. But it's not just a continuous, slowly incrementing thing. It sits there for a while. And then, in just a week later, it'll be a mile longer.

HERSHER: Like, everything seems OK, and then, boom, a giant piece of ice falls into the ocean, unleashing more sea level rise. Erin is trying to figure out how quickly this glacier will splinter, how quickly all that fresh water will be added to the ocean. And her research has huge implications for the people designing that new wall in Galveston because melting ice in West Antarctica actually disproportionately affects the Texas coast.

KWONG: This confused me when you said it earlier - how? - 'cause they are thousands of miles apart.

HERSHER: Yeah, it's weird and counterintuitive, even to the scientists who study it. So Ben Hamlington - he studies this. He studies sea level rise at NASA.

BEN HAMLINGTON: You would think the areas closest to where that ice is being lost would feel it the most. And it's actually the further away you are, the bigger sea level rise you're actually going to feel.

HERSHER: So being far away from Antarctica as it melts doesn't protect cities like Galveston. It actually does the opposite. And the reason is gravity and the way that a big piece of ice exerts gravity. It's very complex. I will not get into it here. We do not have time.

KWONG: Fair, fair.

HERSHER: But there's another reason that Galveston is in the crosshairs, and that reason I will get into. So scientists think that all that extra fresh water that is pouring into the ocean near Antarctica - it could disrupt a major ocean current in the Atlantic, and that would cause even faster sea level rise on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, which is why people in Galveston and in other coastal U.S. cities really need to know how quickly Antarctica's ice is disappearing.

KWONG: So they can build a wall high enough to protect the city truly in this in this era of climate change.

HERSHER: Exactly. In Galveston, the Army Corps of Engineers - they have a plan to make the seawall taller, plus build new gates and dunes and other infrastructure to protect other parts of the city from rising seas. The plan would cost at least $34 billion - with a B, although that's likely an underestimate. It's the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Corps in more than 200 years. One thing they're trying to do is design something that's a little bit more adaptable than a huge concrete wall. You know, there are dunes and gates and new sections of wall. Some parts will be designed so that they can easily be made taller in the future if sea level rise happens really fast.

KWONG: Yeah, I like how they're acknowledging that this is a big question mark. We don't really know how our planet is going to change.

HERSHER: Yeah, I mean, they have no choice. A hurricane could hit the city any year. You know, this hurricane season could be the one. And without some kind of upgrade, the city is just a sitting duck. You know, the great storm of 1900 could happen again.

KWONG: Which most certainly no one wants.


KWONG: Well, I'm sure you will be back as this hurricane season continues.

HERSHER: I will. I will. And before we go, can I suggest a song to close this episode out? I know it's unconventional.

KWONG: I embrace the unconventional.

HERSHER: OK, bear with me. It's, like, a postscript to this whole story. I came across it in my reporting on the 1900 storm.


SIN-KILLER GRIFFIN: (Singing) Wasn't that a mighty storm?

HERSHER: So this song was written by a...

KWONG: Whoa.

HERSHER: ...Traveling preacher named "Sin-Killer" Griffin. This is a recording from around 1915 from the Smithsonian Folklife Center.


GRIFFIN: (Singing) The thunder began to roll. The winds - it began blowing. The rains began to fall. Wasn't that a mighty storm...

HERSHER: What do you think?

KWONG: Just how climate change has always been there in so much of recorded history and, like, braided into our experience as people - I mean, you can hear that this terrible thing happened, and it became part of, like, folk culture.

HERSHER: Yeah. The reason I can't stop thinking about this song is that it has been covered a bunch of times since then. And over time, it's changed. Like, here it is from the 1960s.


TOM RUSH: (Singing) You know, the year of 1900 - that was 60 years ago.

HERSHER: So that's Tom Rush. And here's how Nanci Griffith covered it in 1998.


NANCI GRIFFITH: (Singing) Wasn't that a mighty storm in the morning? Well, wasn't that a mighty storm?

KWONG: That is terribly upbeat for a song about a disaster.

HERSHER: Yeah, it's a party, right? But when I listen to this, I hear so much optimism. And I just...

KWONG: Yeah.

HERSHER: I've been really ruminating on this, Emily. Like, is it blind optimism? Are we ignoring the lessons of the past? Or are we saying, you know, we remember, but we also overcome these things?

KWONG: Maybe both?

HERSHER: Maybe both.


RUSH: (Singing) Galveston had a seawall to keep the water down.

KWONG: This episode was produced by Liz Metzger. It was edited by our managing producer, Rebecca Ramirez, and fact-checked by Rebecca Hersher. Our senior director of programming is Beth Donovan, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

HERSHER: I'm Rebecca Hersher.

KWONG: And I'm Emily Kwong. You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


RUSH: (Singing) Blew all the people all away. You know, the trumpets give them warning. You'd better leave this place...

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.