Climate Change Is Strengthening Typhoons, Hurricanes and Cyclones. The US Isn’t Paying Attention.

December 17, 2018
Super Typhoon Yutu as seen from the RAMMB CIRA SLIDER on October 23, 2018
Alyssa Frederick & Steven Mana`oakamai Johnson

On October 25th, one of the worst storms to strike US land hit the islands of Saipan and Tinian, killing two people and destroying thousands of homes. Because of Super Typhoon Yutu, the islands remain without power, and likely will for the months to come. Fresh water is scarce, and recovery efforts are hindered by lack of access and resources. (Read more about this here.)

Typhoons and hurricanes, or more generally, tropical cyclones, are all spinning storms of high winds (sustained winds of 73 miles per hour or greater) and intense weather like thunderstorms. The only nominal difference is the ocean basin where they originate. The most alarming factor they all share is that intensity and frequency of these cyclonic super storms is increasing with climate change.

Accordingly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change will lead to tropical cyclones with higher rainfall, greater intensity, and greater proportion of high intensity (Category 4-5) storms. These changes are largely caused by warming ocean temperatures, which drive cyclonic storm activity. But sea level rise also increases the damage caused by the storms by exacerbating the effects of storm surge, where waves generated by high winds inundate coastal areas.

Big storms ≠ Big coverage

Super Typhoon Yutu is the strongest storm of 2018, a year that included Hurricanes Florence and Michael. However, it received a small fraction of the news coverage. This comes just four years after Typhoon Suedolor, which took our power on Saipan for four months. Likewise, earlier this year Cyclone Gita was the largest storm to hit Tonga, causing devastating damage. Typhoon Mangkhut hit the Philippines as the strongest storm of 2018 months later, and also caused major damage. In addition to each storm being the strongest or one of the strongest seen in years, they share another characteristic. None received widespread media coverage even close to that of the hurricanes in the Caribbean and Atlantic, despite similar or greater damages and fatalities.

Scientists need to communicate the stories of the islands hit by these storms

As scientists, we are trained to collect, or extract, data from our study systems. This process must be altered – we can study systems without being extractive and instead be collaborative. Collecting data about climate change and its impacts, coral reefs, tropical forests, coastal fisheries, etc., must be paired with action to support resiliency in the places that we study.

One way to do that is spreading awareness. Ensure that the stories of those affected by climate change, whose reefs are destroyed or whose fisheries are exploited are lifted, shared, and centered in all climate change discussions. Use your platform on the mainland to bring attention to the lack of media coverage when storms destroy an ecosystem and community’s way of life. Boost the stories of the places that you study, told by the people who are living there. The social dimensions of the places we study are just as important, if not more, as the ecological dimensions.

Fight for evidence-based policy and change

The Fourth National Climate Assessment was released on November 23rd, outlining the extreme exacerbation of climate change’s impacts on communities. The authors wrote,

People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts. Prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities.”

Unfortunately, the President has not heeded the dire warnings of the nation’s top climate scientists, disregarding this report as a worst case scenario. That leaves the broader scientific community with a job – to fight for evidence-based policy and change with regards to climate action. The policies that enable fossil fuels companies to continue spewing carbon dioxide into our atmosphere are enabled by a colonizing government on mainland America. We have a long history of extracting from the Pacific, of dumping our problems in the ocean, and turning our back. But many of us on the mainland also have the power to vote for congressional representation and to work with our representatives to craft and pass meaningful policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions and center climate action, provide resiliency for infrastructure, and boost efforts of climate action that are happening in Oceania.

Climate change is strengthening storms in Oceania. The scientific community, especially those of us who have the privilege to work in Oceania or those of us from these islands, have the responsibility and obligation to spread awareness and impact policy changes.

Alyssa Frederick is a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine where she studies the impact of climate change and disease on abalone, an ecologically and culturally important group of marine snails. As a National Geographic Young Explorer and Fulbright Fellow, her recent work focuses on species both in New Zealand and the western shores of North America. You can find her on twitter and Instagram as @paua_biologist.

Steven Mana`oakamai Johnson is a Ph.D. student in geography at Oregon State University and conducts research on the diffusion of conservation norms in marine social-ecological systems. Steven is a proponent of diversity and inclusion in STEAM and advancing interdisciplinary efforts to tackle conservation and sustainability issues. Steven was born and raised on Saipan and continues to do research in Micronesia.

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