A Record Breaking Hurricane Season : Short Wave The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season broke records and caused enormous damage. NPR climate reporter Rebecca Hersher talks us through the 2020 season--what was driven by climate change and what it means for the future.

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Climate Change And 2020's Record-Breaking Hurricane Season

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: Hey, Short Wavers. Maddie Sofia here with Emily Kwong.


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KWONG: Hello, Rebecca Hersher.


KWONG: Hello. So how are you? Like, what are you thinking about these days?

HERSHER: Honestly...


HERSHER: I just can't stop thinking about the hurricane season that we just had. Like, basically, my entire life, I've been hearing that climate change could mean really bad hurricane seasons. There have been a bunch of really bad hurricane seasons in recent years. But this season, like, it was just on steroids. And I can't stop thinking about what that means if years like this become normal.

KWONG: Yeah, that would definitely keep you up at night, Miss Sunshine and Roses.

HERSHER: But seriously, I mean, I know there's a lot going on this year. There have been a lot of disasters. But I couldn't let 2020 hurricane season end without marking what happened. Like, here are some of the things. There were the most named storms ever in the Atlantic, 12 storms that hit the U.S., multiple hurricanes that rapidly intensified, multiple places that got hit by two storms in one year.


HERSHER: And I just wanted to take a moment to go through, like, which of these really nasty superlatives are being driven by climate change and which are things that are more like a coincidence.

KWONG: Yeah, let's talk about all of that. So today on the show, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season broke records and caused enormous damage. But how much of that was actually driven by climate change? And what does it mean for the future? I am Emily Kwong, and you are listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


KWONG: OK, today we are talking about just how active this year's Atlantic hurricane season was with climate correspondent Becky Hersher. Let's start at the beginning. When does hurricane season begin?

HERSHER: So it officially starts on June 1, and it runs through the end of November. But this year, the storms left the gate early.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Look at this - first tropical storm of the season. Arthur is the name.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Earlier this morning, we had our second named storm of 2020 already develop - and it's not even hurricane season yet - off the coast of South Carolina. This was called Bertha.

HERSHER: Now, neither of these storms caused serious damage. But this is the sixth year in a row that there's been at least one named storm before hurricane season even began. And storms - they just get names when they're organized enough to hold together as they move over the water.

KWONG: Yeah. And six years in a row sounds like such a trend. So is that happening because of climate change?

HERSHER: Well, it's an interesting question. You know, there is no conclusive evidence yet that climate change is causing hurricanes to form earlier. Hurricane formation is pretty complicated, actually. There are a lot of factors. So maybe what happened this year and in past years - it's more of a short-term trend.


HERSHER: And understanding whether the hurricane season will need to officially get longer as the Earth gets hotter is something that scientists are still studying.

KWONG: OK, so that was the beginning of the hurricane season. Sounds like it started early. And then what happened?

HERSHER: There were just so many storms.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: And Tropical Storm Cristobal...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Happens to be the earliest fifth storm on record. This is our E-letter storm, Tropical Storm Edouard.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Tropical Storm Gonzalo.



JAMIE YUCCAS: In developing news tonight, more than 600,000 people remain without power across Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in the wake of Hurricane Delta.

HERSHER: So in that whole list, the first one that was really notable for me climate-wise was Hanna.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Tropical Storm Hanna has strengthened a little bit.

HERSHER: So this is late July. Hanna is in the Gulf of Mexico. It's headed for Texas. And it changes. It gets a lot stronger as it moves over the water.


TYLER MAULDIN: And this storm has rapidly intensified overnight. It is now a hurricane packing 80-mile-per-hour winds, moving...

KWONG: Eighty-mile-per-hour winds - that's terrifying. And by rapidly intensifying, what does that mean in hurricane speak?

HERSHER: So it means that this storm's wind speeds got about 35 miles per hour faster in 24 hours or less. And wind speed, it tells you how powerful the storm is. So Hanna got a lot more powerful really quickly. And that rapid intensification is enough to make Hanna the first hurricane of the season, which means more destruction. In this case, it damaged people's houses, pushed a lot of water into neighborhoods, caused flooding. It was bad.

KWONG: So why did it intensify so quickly? Was this climate change?

HERSHER: Yes. So that is why Hanna really sticks out of my head, because it was the beginning of the climate-driven part of this year's hurricane season. Basically, hurricanes rapidly intensify because the ocean water under them is hotter, which means it has more energy that the storm can use to power up like a battery. Temperatures on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico were hotter than average this summer. In general, sea surface temperatures are rising in most parts of the ocean all around the Earth.

KWONG: Yeah.

HERSHER: And that's because the ocean is soaking up the majority of the excess heat that greenhouse gases trap in the atmosphere. So hot water means storms are more likely to rapidly intensify, and this is something that scientists can already observe happening. Like, in the last 40 years, the number of storms that rapidly intensify has increased.

KWONG: Wow, OK. And you said that Hurricane Hanna was in late July, and that's just two months into hurricane season. So what do you make of that?

HERSHER: So based on the interviews I've done with climate scientists, I was kind of surprised because it was still early in the season. You know, the water in the Gulf of Mexico was only going to get hotter as the summer went on. And then, lo and behold, there were nine other storms that rapidly intensified in the Atlantic this year.

KWONG: That is so many. Nine storms - that is so many, Becky.

HERSHER: I know. It's too many. So in addition to Hanna, there was Laura, Sally, Teddy, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta and Iota, the most ever recorded.

KWONG: (Laughter). It's - I'm laughing because it's just like the graduating class - the graduating hurricane class of 2020...

HERSHER: (Laughter) More destructive than ever.

KWONG: ...This kind of terrifying year.

HERSHER: Yeah. And it wasn't just me. Even climate scientists were surprised by this. Like, this is Rebecca Morss from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

REBECCA MORSS: This season has just been something that no one could've believed. Watching those hurricanes rapidly intensify in the Gulf is just crazy.

KWONG: Yeah. So I get that it's uncommon to have this many storms get so powerful so fast. But beyond the record-breakingness (ph), how is it affecting people - because there are big storms every year, right?

HERSHER: Yeah. I mean, the problem with rapid intensification is that it gives people less time to prepare. Like, if on one day you hear there's a tropical storm with winds powerful enough to, like, blow your lawn chairs around, you make decisions based on that. And if less than a day later, the same storm is all of a sudden powerful enough to rip your roof off, that's really bad because if you had known earlier, maybe you would've done something differently, maybe even left your house.

KWONG: Yeah. Or maybe local or state officials could've issued evacuation orders - right? - or help people at least...


KWONG: ...Prepare if they had more lead time.

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. So just to review, by the end of the Atlantic hurricane season, when all was said and done, there were 30 named storms. That's a record. And that on its own - not necessarily climate-related. Like, there's no clear evidence that the total number of hurricanes is increasing as the Earth gets hotter.


HERSHER: But there is evidence that of the storms that form, more of them are becoming major hurricanes.

KWONG: OK. And major hurricanes - in hurricane speak, what does that mean? Are those big hurricanes?

HERSHER: Not so much big as powerful, like storms with wind speeds above 110 mph. And we saw that this year. There were six major hurricanes, which is a lot. And that is clearly climate-related. This is the type of thing that climate scientists expect to see as the earth gets hotter. Hurricanes around the world are about 25% more likely to reach major hurricane status than they were 40 years ago. And that's all for the same reason that storms are more likely to rapidly intensify - hotter ocean water.

KWONG: Yeah. And we should mention, too, that a lot of these hurricanes hit land this year.


KWONG: I feel like Louisiana alone got hit three or four times, and then there were two storms in a row that hit Central America. So what do you make of that? Does climate change make storms more likely to start in the same place, move in the same direction and hit the same piece of land?

HERSHER: A lot of people are wondering about that this year because it was weird. There were actually five storms that hit Louisiana in 2020.


HERSHER: Two of them basically hit the exact same place on the Texas border. And then there was Eta and Iota. They both hit Nicaragua this fall. But there is no evidence that climate change causes storms to take the same track. However...


HERSHER: Speaking of Hurricane Eta - that's the second storm that hit Central America - that storm is a perfect and terrifying example of the last thing I want to talk about.

KWONG: What happened there?

HERSHER: So it hit Nicaragua, and then it continued into Guatemala.


NORAH O'DONNELL: ...When Guatemala's military reached a remote mountain village that had been buried by mudslides. At least 100 people are dead or missing there. Elsewhere in Guatemala and Honduras, helicopters and boats are being used to rescue people stranded by floodwaters.

HERSHER: Because when the storm hit land, it basically just stopped moving.

KWONG: Like, it rapidly intensified. It was one of those, right? And then it was really powerful. And I guess that it hit land and it stopped spinning.

HERSHER: It kept spinning, but it stopped moving forward.


HERSHER: Like, it basically stalled over one area in Guatemala. And it just dumped rain.


HERSHER: There was so much rain. It caused mudslides. It killed more than a hundred people. And floods, they are so dangerous. Like, they're consistently the most deadly effect of a hurricane. When hurricanes stall, they cause massive flooding, and that is related to climate change. Tropical storms are moving more slowly as the earth heats up. So that's the speed they move over the land or over the water. So when this happened to Hurricane Eta - and earlier this year, it also happened to a storm called Sally - it was really devastating because you can see this happening. And you can think, this is going to keep getting more common. And it's so destructive for people's lives.

KWONG: It is destructive, yeah. Becky, thank you for continuing to report on these hurricane patterns for us. And last question - is the science of that getting any easier?

HERSHER: You know, scientists are getting better at predicting storms, like how powerful they are, where they're going, what people in the path of these things will experience. And on top of the climate science, there are social scientists who are also thinking about how to communicate all of that risk to people on the ground. So their goal is to help residents and officials prepare better, help protect people from hurricanes and tropical storms because that's the thing. There will be more years like 2020 in the future.

KWONG: Rebecca Hersher, you always bring a ray of hope with your climate change reality.

HERSHER: (Laughter).

KWONG: Thank you so much for coming on the show.

HERSHER: That's the nicest possible way to describe what I do. Thanks, Emily.

KWONG: This episode was produced by Thomas Lu and edited by Gisele Grayson - fact-checking by Ariela Zebede. And big thanks to Josephine Nyounai for her engineering support on this episode. I'm Emily Kwong, and this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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