When Bigger Isn't Better
Understanding The Aftermath of Hurricane Ian, The Science of "Rapid Intensification" & Other Water Disasters
Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
These words come from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published in 1798. In the story, an old man takes to the sea with a crew of sailors to explore the open waters, but a powerful storm sets them to the South Pole, a place of dangerous beauty where they ultimately begin a slow process dying of thirst, despite being surrounded by water.
That’s similar to the nightmare many experienced in southwest Florida, one of the fastest-growing areas of the country, after Hurricane Ian made landfall last week.
The Category 4 storm tore through neighborhoods like Sanibel Island, Fort Myers Beach, and Cape Coral last Wednesday with 150-mile-an-hour winds, torrential rains, and a surge of ocean water that washed buildings away. The causeway connecting Sanibel Island, a popular vacation spot, with the mainland was destroyed, and now the only way to get to the island is by boat or helicopter.
The death toll from the storm has climbed to more than 100 people, as search-and-rescue teams continue to look for survivors.
About 2.5 million power outages were reported in Florida last week. As we mentioned in our coverage of Hurricane Fiona, when the power goes out so does access to clean drinking water. Even today more than 300,000 Florida residents remain without power, according to PowerOutage.us.
That power is needed to keep water flowing at municipal water facilities. Water line breaks are also common during superstorm events. In some of the hardest-hit places in Florida, water was not coming out of the taps after the storm.
But the worst trouble was in Lee County, where a badly damaged water system was affecting a population of nearly 760,000, forcing residents to hunt through a tableau of ruin for bottled-water distribution sites and forcing state and federal officials to improvise some creative solutions, according to reporting in The New York Times.
These water shortages don’t just affect homes, but hospitals, nursing homes, and schools too.
Even for those with access to water, the list of boil-water advisories maintained by the Florida Department of Health, is dizzying at best right now.
Thankfully, even though the storm dumped almost 7 inches of rain as it passed through the Piney Point site near Tampa Bay, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said it inspected the waste ponds and found that “there is no identified damage to the compartment systems or any other water management concerns.”
Piney Point has received approximately 49.2 inches of rain since January, according to the DEP, and the current storage capacity for additional rainfall at the site is approximately 21 inches.
But there are a few other pieces of this storm to unpack.
I will continue to say that climate change is a water crisis.
The crisis is not just mega storms, but changing weather patterns in general—whether that’s more intense snow, catastrophic flooding, severe ongoing drought, areas that become warm when they should be cold, etc. It all leads to unpredictability in how much water is available relative to the historical needs of communities.
In 2018, the world’s top scientists told us that we only had 12 years to stop the climate crisis. We now have eight.
Part of what was so scary about Hurricane Ian was how it began with wind speeds of about 75 miles per hour, and within 48 hours, those speeds had more than doubled. Houston, we have a problem!
Meteorologists call this hurried growth “rapid intensification,” or storms whose wind speeds increase by roughly 35 mph or more in less than 24 hours.
Hurricanes that rapidly intensify can easily catch coastal communities off guard, giving them little time to prepare, Miller added.
Three main factors can contribute to a rapidly intensifying storm: moist air, low wind shear (wind coming from different directions or at different speeds), and warm ocean water.
The Gulf of Mexico has been unseasonably warm this summer, according to the National Weather Service.
But back in 2017 we were also talking about these warm waters:
The overall daily water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico never fell below 73 degrees this winter for the first time on record, according to hurricane expert Michael Lowry, and that could have a few long-lasting ramifications in the months to come.
Talk about the years to come!
Of course the gulf is different than the ocean, but we also know that the oceans are warmer too.
Our oceans absorb heat from the sun, and then ocean currents move that warm water all around the planet, like highways.
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases act like a blanket, trapping some of the heat that Earth might have otherwise radiated out into space.
Today, carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been in at least 3 million years.
This excess carbon dioxide causes the planet to trap more heat. The ocean absorbs about one-quarter of the CO2 that humans create when we burn fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas).
This warmer water creates bigger storms that can rapidly intensify, which are both harder to predict and harder to prepare for.
That’s a huge problem!
Now, it’s interesting to note that research shows that storms do wax and wane throughout the years. In fact, a July 2022 analysis of historical records and satellite data suggests that there aren’t actually more Atlantic hurricanes now than there were roughly 150 years ago.
But scientific studies have shown that hurricanes are intensifying more rapidly in parts of the Atlantic in recent years.
As we talked about at the beginning of this story, our development of coastal communities like Fort Myers is also rapid expanding.
These communities are bigger, so when the storms rapidly intensify, there’s more people to evacuate, potentially more pollution to deal with, and more infrastructure that needs to withstand these huge storms.
Talk about the perfect storm!
We must continue to look forward and advocate for smarter development, smarter infrastructure, and ways to reduce manmade warming of the planet. And of course, stop generating so much toxic waste as we continue to find new ways to clean it up.
Speaking of Fossil Fuels…
Did you see this viral, fake commercial created by Adam McKay, the director of the movie Don’t Look Up? Be sure to listen with the volume up as the images and the voice over are starkly different.
“Nature-rinsing,” is a term for when companies use images of the beauty of nature—wild landscapes, green plants, cute animals—to imply that they are eco-friendly by association. Marketing research has shown that these kinds of images really do work, eliciting pleasant emotions and a more positive view of the advertiser’s brand, according to a story from Grist.org.
Ok, let’s keep the conversation going in the comments below. Let us know what you think about these bigger, badder storms.
For those who are inclined, here’s an article with resources to help those in need.