Record-breaking Irma ravages the Caribbean

The eye of the hurricane: Irma is estimated to be the size of France.

Has weather forecasting “beaten” Mother Nature? As Irma approaches Florida, improved technology means that we are able to predict natural disasters with greater accuracy than ever before.

The world’s eyes are on Irma. Roads, schools and homes have been destroyed and lives have been lost. One resident of the tiny island of Antigua compared her ordeal to a “horror movie”. Around 90% of buildings on the island were destroyed, leaving 50% of residents homeless.

But it is not over yet. America is waiting nervously while Irma crashes towards Florida. As it leaves behind a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands, there are two more storms on their way. Hurricane Jose is creeping towards the Caribbean; meanwhile Hurricane Katia lurks menacingly off the eastern coast of Mexico.

Hurricane Irma is no ordinary storm. It is a “catastrophic” Category 5 hurricane. Yet as reports of death and destruction flood in, this week Alan Burdick argued in The New Yorker that we need to pause to “appreciate the supreme human accomplishment that modern weather prediction has become.”

Last week, meteorologists were tracking Irma's progress across the Atlantic while Tropical Storm Harvey was raging through the Caribbean and the southern USA. Increasingly sophisticated forecasting models are fed data captured by the satellites which orbit Earth. Britain’s Met Office estimates that a four-day forecast is now as accurate as a one-day forecast was 30 years ago.

It is impossible to know at this stage where Irma is headed, or whether it will maintain its 185mph wind speed. But compared to previous hurricanes which have struck without warning and killed thousands, meteorologists are extremely well-informed. Florida’s governor Rick Scott tweeted earlier: “If you have been ordered to evacuate, do so now. Don't wait.”

The countries affected by Irma will feel its devastation for months or even years to come. The Dutch-administered Sint Maarten has suffered “enormous material damage” according to the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte. Can we therefore really claim to have “beaten” Mother Nature?

The perfect storm

“Absolutely,” argue some. The information provided by forecasters before Irma struck meant that people could evacuate, avoiding a potentially huge loss of life. There is still work to be done to reinforce hurricane-prone nations. However, we are now able to avoid the high fatalities of the past using information from institutions like NASA. Mother Nature has become predictable, thanks to science.

“This is ridiculous,” respond others. Just look how much damage has been done to survivors’ lives. One million people have been left without power in Puerto Rico. What’s more, the forecasters were not accurate enough. We are still not sure when or where the hurricane will hit in Florida, leaving residents anxious and uncertain. Mother Nature is as powerful as ever.

You Decide

  1. There is a hurricane raging outside your house and you must leave to find somewhere safe. What three things would you take with you?
  2. Do other nations have a duty to provide aid to countries affected by hurricanes and storms?

Activities

  1. Create a leaflet giving people advice on what to do in a hurricane.
  2. Choose another major natural disaster to research. Were people prepared? How did governments respond? Which parts of their strategy were well done and which parts were badly done?

Some People Say...

“The weather forecast saves more lives than seat belts.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Hurricane Irma has become the first recorded Atlantic hurricane to sustain winds of 185mph for more than 24 hours. The last hurricane to come even close to this was Hurricane Allen in 1980, which maintained winds of over 180mph and above for 18 hours. The intensity and scale of Hurricane Irma means that officials expect the damage to infrastructure to be enormous.
What do we not know?
The extent to which Irma is a symptom of climate change. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has responded to the hurricane by stating that the international community must now work together to halt the damaging effects we are having on the planet and avoid similar disasters in the future. Meanwhile, other leaders are reluctant to connect the disaster with the effects of climate change.

Word Watch

Category 5 hurricane
The Saffir—Simpson hurricane wind scale measures the scale of hurricanes, ranging from 1 (minimal) to 5 (catastrophic).
Forecasting models
These models are essentially computer programs which process data gathered from satellites in order to generate predictions of the weather.
Met Office
The UK’s meteorological office. The Met Office covers both weather and climate change.
Previous hurricanes
The Category 4 hurricane in Galveston, Texas killed 8,000 people and destroyed the entire city. The city was totally unprepared for the hurricane as it happened in 1900, before the invention of satellite imaging.
Hurricane-prone nations
Hurricanes involve the movement of warm air. They therefore usually form over warm water (which heats the air above it) before sometimes moving towards land. Since the water over the equator is the warmest part of an ocean, nations around the equator are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.