Hurricanes and climate change with Professor John Silva

Hurricane and climate change with Professor John Silva

By Benjamin Solomon, Staff Writer

Are hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria a manifestation of climate change? Are there going to be more, stronger storms coming in the near future? How will this affect us? These are the questions we will be exploring with the help of Professor John Silva of the physics department, who currently teaches a class on weather.

To begin, Professor Silva went to the hurricane history section of a website called Unysis. It contains information about all of the recorded hurricanes and tropical storms from the past 150 years, including strength and diagrams of travel paths. Using this information, he explained, we can attempt to discern a pattern.

Professor Silva explained the science behind the idea that climate change may affect hurricane strength. “If water temperature goes up, a degree and a half or a degree point seven, then it puts something like five to seven percent more water vapor in the atmosphere, which makes it more capable so that when that changes over from a vapor back into a liquid it releases all that heat. Hurricanes live off of the heat of evaporating sea water.” So, there is theoretical backing for this concept.

This being said, Professor Silva expressed some doubts as to whether this was actually occurring.

“If you go through this and try to find the top five hurricanes that have hit Massachusetts then you come up with really some conflicting data. What the data basically says is that there’s almost a cycle – some people think it’s a 30-year cycle… If you compare 2017 to 2016, there’s not as many storms [in 2016] of that intensity. If you trace it back year before year and keep going back, then you see in many ways that the number hasn’t really changed that much.”

“One of the things I have my class do is count up the number of storms per decade and see if they find a trend. You don’t find that as you go towards the present it gets greater and greater. It doesn’t seem to do that. You hit peaks and valleys.”

In the end, Silva considers, “Is it absolutely conclusive? It tends to make sense that the warmer it gets then the hurricane season tends to be from late August to September but it stretches to October – but if you put more water vapor into the atmosphere then the planet must be warmer so it makes it logical that there should be more hurricanes. But not just hurricanes, more powerful rain storms including thunderstorms and all sorts of bizarre weather, and in the case of winter even more snow.”

“Is it 100 percent assured that humans are causing more hurricanes? There isn’t really an answer. We just don’t know.”

How will these storms affect Massachusetts? Professor Silva referred to one of the most powerful storms to hit the region, Hurricane Bob of 1991, saying, “Years ago, New Bedford did the right thing, which is to build a hurricane barrier which really did protect [the town] against Hurricane Bob. Now, they’re thinking about building a hurricane barrier outside of Boston harbor. You don’t often hear about hurricanes hitting Boston, maybe they are more worried about rising sea levels.”

To conclude, Professor Silva found some pictures of Providence from what is known as “The Great New England Hurricane” of 1938. The city was flooded with several feet of water. This is what may await New Englanders in the future, if theories of climate change impact are correct, which is unknown as of yet.

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