Early Hurricane Beryl Signals Climate Change Impact on Extreme Weather

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This week, Hurricane Beryl became the earliest hurricane in history to form in the Atlantic Ocean, battering the Caribbean, and experts say that climate change is making it much more likely for extreme weather events like this to occur.

The National Hurricane Center said Tuesday that Beryl is “expected to bring life-threatening winds and storm surge to Jamaica on Wednesday and the Cayman Islands Wednesday night and Thursday.” The hurricane isn’t the only extreme weather event that has occurred around the world over the past few days—fierce storms led to flooding in Switzerland and Italy; and wildfires raged in Canada and Greece. While scientists cannot say that climate change is the direct cause of each specific extreme weather event, they have shown that climate change can make some of these disasters more intense and frequent.

“It’s important to remember there was extreme weather before climate change,” Alex Hall—a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)—tells TIME. “The climate is variable, the weather is variable; we expect there to be extremes. But it’s just that the likelihood of extremes has changed, and the likelihood of these types of events occurring is greater.”

Hurricanes rely on a warm ocean to form. Because of that, hurricane season usually runs from  June through November, when oceans are warm enough for a hurricane to develop, says Marcus C. Sarofim, a physical scientist in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Climate Science & Impacts Branch. But Beryl is “unusual” and “unprecedented,” Hall adds, because it’s happening so early in the hurricane season, before the warmest ocean temperatures are usually seen.

“Climate change is stacking the dice in favor of events like that,” Hall says. “The fact that we’re seeing this event, that is unprecedented, occurring is entirely consistent with climate change.”

Current research indicates that while the warming climate will likely lead to less frequent Category 1 and 2 storms, it will lead to more frequent intense storms, like Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, Sarofim says.

Warmer temperatures also allow the Earth’s atmosphere to hold more water in it, which can lead to heavy rainfall, says Steve Vavrus, director of the Wisconsin State Climatology Office. Intense rainfall often leads to flooding, which can overwhelm existing stormwater systems, he adds.

“A lot of our infrastructure was built for a different climate than we’ve seen today,” Vavrus says. “We really need to take stock of how to prepare for the changing climate as we face it in the future.”

On the other hand, because the atmosphere can hold more moisture, that can demand more evaporation, which can lead to drier conditions on land, according to Vavrus. Along with higher temperatures, these dry conditions can bring an increased risk of wildfires. According to a new report released Tuesday, the extent of the area that wildfires have burned in the U.S. has risen since the 1980s. The report found that the 10 years with the largest acreage burned by wildfires all occurred since 2004—coinciding with some of the warmest years recorded.

Some extreme weather events can also have “cascading effects,” Hall says. In 2023, smoke from wildfires burning in Canada traveled to New York City, transforming the sky into an orange haze and affecting the air quality.

Extreme weather events often affect human health, Vavrus says. Beryl has caused power outages on several Caribbean islands. The storms in Switzerland and northern Italy have left thousands of people without power.

In addition to the toll on human health, there are financial consequences of climate change, such as rebuilding or repairing the damage caused by flooding or wildfires, Vavrus says.

Sarofim says there are many ways individuals can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including using more efficient appliances, turning off lights when they leave a room, and taking public transit or driving more efficient cars. In the U.S., greenhouse gas emissions decreased by about 1.9% in 2023, according to estimates released in January by the independent research firm the Rhodium Group.

“The best strategy to reduce the likelihood of these types of extremes is to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases,” Hall says. “We need to slow climate change down and ultimately reverse it.”

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