‘Catastrophic’ storm rocks Texas with floods

Flood gates: Hurricane Harvey is expected to break flood records in the next few days. © Getty

All weekend, a powerful storm in Texas has ripped apart homes and flooded streets. It could drop almost a year’s worth of rain in a few days. How far can Harvey be blamed on climate change?

Trees were uprooted. Power cables were blown away “as if they were twigs”, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity. The roof of a high school caved in. Cattle wandered through fields that looked more like lakes. Prisons were evacuated. So far, at least five people have been killed in the floods.

This is Harvey — a hurricane-turned-storm that has battered the coast of Texas since Friday night, with initial winds of up to 130mph. It is the worst of its kind to hit the USA in over a decade.

And it is not over. Torrential rains are continuing to flood homes and threaten lives. In Houston, 24 inches of rain fell in 24 hours on Saturday, about half the yearly average. Experts say the storm could last until Wednesday.

“This disaster is going to be a landmark event,” said the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long.

As journalists considered the destruction in Texas, it was not long before an old debate resurfaced: could climate change be to blame?

The science of extreme weather has improved in recent years. But it would be wrong to directly attribute Harvey to climate change, scientist Katharine Hayhoe told The New York Times. Hurricanes are not unusual at this time of year in America. Then again, climate change “can have a role in intensifying a storm that already exists.”

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, global warming has led to higher sea levels. This makes the storm surge — when strong winds raise the sea far above normal heights — even worse.

A warmer atmosphere also leads to faster evaporation. More water vapour in the air, Hayhoe explained, means more rain is unleashed in a storm. Other scientists add that climate change can make hurricanes more likely, even if it does not cause them — the question is one of probability rather than blame.

“People always want to know is it climate change or is it not?” Hayhoe summarised. “The answer is it’s in between.”

Talking about the weather

It’s not helpful to argue about about climate change during such a devastating storm, say some. The science is complicated, the arguments are political, and the debate does not give the answers people crave. Instead, scientists and governments should focus on more practical questions — what is the best way to advise the public? And how can people be kept safe?

The climate debate is too important to set aside, respond others. Hurricanes are a chance to focus people’s minds on the effects of global warming. Individual storms like Harvey may not be directly caused by it — but do we want to live in a world where they are more likely, and more dangerous? If the answer is no, scientists have a duty to keep bringing it up.

You Decide

  1. How concerned are you about climate change?
  2. How much should scientists talk about climate change during a natural disaster?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are the governor of Texas today. Write a short speech which you would give to Texans about Harvey and its effects.
  2. Draw a diagram which explains the impact that global warming can have on hurricanes.

Some People Say...

“The climate, evolving, changes the land. It also changes the people.”

Benjamin Wallace-Wells

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The hurricane made landfall at around 10pm local time on Friday night. (Landfall is the moment when a storm reaches the land after being at sea.) It has been downgraded to a tropical storm, and is currently still hovering over Texas. Two deaths have been confirmed so far. The Atlantic hurricane season, which includes the Gulf of Mexico, lasts between June 1st and November 30th each year.
What do we not know?
How long Harvey will last, how many more people will be killed, or how many homes will ultimately be destroyed. The head of America’s emergency management, Brock Long, has said that the clean-up in Texas will take “years”. We also do not know how far climate change is influencing the storm — it will take months for scientists to come up with a definitive report.

Word Watch

Five people
At least one local sheriff has predicted the death toll could rise, with rescuers struggling to reach those who are stranded. Until locations can be reached, the number of deaths cannot be officially confirmed.
Hurricane-turned-storm
According to the Saffir-Simpson scale, a storm becomes a hurricane when its winds exceed 74mph. There are then five “categories” to determine how serious it is. Category 3 is considered a major hurricane, when wind speeds exceed 111mph. If they exceed 130mph it becomes a Category 4, which Harvey managed on Friday. However, Harvey is now a “tropical storm” after winds dropped to 70mph.
Coast of Texas
Part of the Gulf of Mexico, including the large cities of Houston and Corpus Christi. The area is also known for its oil and gas production, which adds an extra environmental and economic risk to the storm.
Decade
The last storm to hit the USA while in Category 4 was Charley in 2004. However, in 2005, Katrina claimed hundreds more lives.
Higher sea levels
A combined effect of water swelling as it warms, and melting glaciers and ice sheets.

Subjects

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