Heating up Hurricanes


Photo from Kakela

One of the most vivid early memories from my childhood was when Hurricane Gloria struck in the fall of 1985. I was 7 years old, living in a suburb of Boston and was completely confused about what was going on. What were hurricanes anyway?  Why did we need to stock the fridge and get batteries for our flashlights? We were hardy New Englanders; did we really care about a little rain?

Then I remember the storm starting, the power going out, seeing the tree branches smashing against the windows and being terrified when my dad decided to wander outside when the eye of the storm passed over. It turns out that Gloria was a doozy. 

According to the National Weather Service:

“Overall, the storm caused extensive damage along the East Coast of the United States, amounting to $900 million ($1.94 billion in 2012 terms), and was responsible for eight fatalities. The storm was the first significant system to strike the northeastern United States since Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and the first major storm to affect New York and Long Island directly since Hurricane Donna in 1960.”

Many hurricanes have happened since, flooding basements, launching trees into houses, and collapsing buildings. And in more recent years I’ve heard many people say that “obviously it’s climate change.” But rather than merely asserting this connection, the better thing would be to investigate the question as researchers do.

So, what makes a hurricane anyway, and why do scientists think climate change could make them worse?

The New York Times does a great job explaining it in this video:

I like this video because it breaks down the component parts of how hurricanes form and why climate change could influence them. This is in tune with what researchers do when they want to ask a question. They look at the component pieces which we understand (such as how hurricanes form) and then analyze what would happen if a piece of that changed (a warmer ocean and higher sea level). As it says in the video, what we’ve found is that climate change may not produce more hurricanes per se, but that those that form will be more powerful.

It’s for that reason that hurricanes are a perfect example to teach kids how science works: how we ask and answer questions, how we understand systems, how we make hypotheses and then…how we make plans. If we can better understand how hurricanes will be shaped by climate change, then we can build housing accordingly, we can strengthen sea walls, construct better drainage, and keep families safe.

As we plan for the hurricanes of the future, we need to prepare students with the information about the systems and planet they’ll be living in. I was an uninformed and terrified 7-year-old when Gloria hit, but wouldn’t it be better if when the next big hurricane comes through every 7-year-old wasn’t mired in mystery but rather knew the science? What if they could educate their parents about why the next storm might be more powerful than storms in the past? Imagine if they were empowered to work with their community to make plans for the future? There are many teachable moments in everyone’s life. Could we make hurricanes part of them?