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Living With Climate Change: Hurricane season begins —how to prepare for another above-normal year

June 1 officially kicks off hurricane season, lasting through November, and another storm-packed, potentially deadly and expensive few months are predicted.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is forecasting an above-normal hurricane season in the Atlantic, with up to 21 named storms this year. Ten storms could become hurricanes, the agency says — and three to six storms may reach category 3, 4 or 5. Follow the latest at hurricanes.gov.

Climate change is leading to shifts in the reach and intensity of storms we’re only beginning to fully understand. And it means most Americans, investors and homeowners among them, need to better educate themselves on climate change and related storm risks.

As the burning of oil
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and gas send the bulk of carbon and other emissions into the atmosphere, 2021 was the world’s sixth-warmest year on record. Land and ocean temperatures were 0.84°C (1.51°F) above the 20th century average, by some measures. 

The lengthy list of factors that led to a record number of 2020 storms, and a hearty follow-up the next year, are still in play: the natural climate event La Nina, human-caused climate change, warmer ocean waters, the Gulf of Mexico’s deep hot Loop Current, increased storminess in Africa, cleaner skies, a multi-decade active storm cycle and continued property development along already popular coasts.

The only contrary sign this year is that for the first time since 2014, a storm didn’t form before the official June 1 start of the season. Still, forecasters are watching the Eastern Pacific’s record-setting Hurricane Agatha that looks likely to cross over land and reform as Alex in the Gulf of Mexico later this week.

In addition to personal cost, the economic toll has continued to rise.

Led by the deadly and costly Hurricane Ida and massive flooding in Europe, the world racked up $329 billion in economic losses linked to severe weather last year, and only 38% of that bill was covered by insurance, Aon reported.

Modern life means both that it is more efficient to warn people when severe weather lurks, allowing for property protection and flight to safety, but also that ever greater development along vulnerable coasts and in population clusters puts more lives and structures in the path of destruction. Plus, the reach of hurricanes can stretch beyond those states and cities that are typical targets. Increasingly, named storms blast routine hurricane states with flooding and more damage further inland.

“Multi-peril” events are on the rise. For instance, Hurricane Ida, which cost more than $75 billion in economic losses, hit several U.S. states in late summer 2021. Ida was not limited to its coastal impact along the Gulf of Mexico. Powerful storm remnants hit the populous Northeast, bringing costly flooding inland as well as tornadoes as far as Pennsylvania and other places.

Related: The 10 most expensive climate-change disasters of 2021 cost $170 billion — and this U.S. storm was No. 1

Here’s the basic science, and some steps to better prepare .

1. Hotter temperatures kick up more water. Weather (short term) and climate (longer term) are two different factors. Confusing weather with climate has long been fuel for climate-change deniers. Where the two intersect is what matters. Studies show that warming air and ocean temperatures are increasing the odds and severity of heavy precipitation events. That leads to changes in hurricanes that are making them more powerful and potentially more damaging.

Specifically, for every 1°C (1.8°F) increase in temperatures, the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture.

As the storms travel across warm oceans, they pull in more water vapor and heat. That means stronger wind, heavier rainfall and more flooding when the storms hit land.

In New York earlier this month, for instance, all-time rainfall records were shattered with 3.15 inches of rain in one hour in Central Park.

More rain is expected if Earth is allowed to warm further. Studies project a 10%-15% average increase in rainfall rates of tropical storms in a 2°C global warming scenario, according to the site Climate Central, which teams up journalists and scientists.

A recent report looked deeper into how climate change is impacting retirement plans. Read: A retirement safe from climate change? Ask the tough questions about real estate and property insurance

2. There are just more hurricanes, period. 2020 wrapped with a record 30 named hurricanes, and 2021 produced 21 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater), including seven hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or greater), of which four were major hurricanes (winds of 111 mph or greater).

Those back-to-back years marked the first time on record that two consecutive hurricane seasons exhausted the list of 21 storm names.

3. Greater freqency, greater damage. A report from the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization said global weather disasters tied to climate change strike four to five times more often and create seven times more damage than in the 1970s.

The report also showed that weather disasters are killing far fewer people since the 1970s and 1980s as preventative measures, including flood walls and evacuation plans for those who can afford them, are more common.

It is, however, costing the country more to weather them out. That’s because expanding development has occurred in at-risk areas.

4. Calendar change? The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the National Hurricane Center are considering advancing the start date of hurricane season to May 15. And earlier awareness could bring better preparation.

While the storm itensity data has accumulated, it’s not yet clear that climate change is causing tropical systems to occur earlier. So for now the experts are waiting on redefining the June-November hurricane season. The pause is a solid example of reverence for the evolving nature of science in this area.

Read: As drought ravages the West, any investor not focused on climate risk is ‘really kidding themselves,’ says this portfolio manager

5. Hurricane homework. For residents and business owners in hurricane paths, and even those just outside the typical reach of the storms, a better understanding of flood risk and insurance needs is one way to prepare for these intensifying seasons.

FEMA collects information on flood insurance for each state and you can check out NOAA’s interactive billion-dollar weather and climate disasters website to find historic events near you.

Using FEMA data, the Natural Resources Defense Council has created an online tool to find repeatedly flooded properties in each state and county, along with National Flood Insurance Program claims.

Pew Charitable Trusts has compiled research on local flood mitigation efforts around the country, and the National Conference of State Legislatures collects resources on state-level actions on flood issues.

6. Be ready to evacuate. In calmer times, plan your escape route should a storm or flooding force you to leave your home fast. Have gas in the car, cash on hand in case ATMs aren’t reachable, pack your medications and at least a week’s worth of food. Read more ways to prepare.

Read: ‘If it rains where you live consider flood insurance’: How Ida exposed insurance loopholes that cost homeowners

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