Extreme Storms

Firenados of biblical proportions, severe hurricanes wiping out entire electrical grids, flooding, tsunamis, heavy downpours, snowmageddons, droughts; you name, we've got it on the 5 o'clock news.


The form of a storm

Tropical cyclones, like hurricanes, form from warm, moist air evaporated from the sea, typically by the equator, mixing with the cold air above and forming spiraling clouds. Its infancy is a tropical storm, while its adulthood is a cyclone. Tornados work similarly; warm mixing with the cold over the prairie and forming a cyclone. Once this tropical storm develops into a full blown cyclone, climatic winds carry it over the sea, feeding off the warmth from the water, until sometimes it reaches land. Once here, it quickly dissipates because there's no more water left to feed it, though it already dwindled some from leaving its source. However, that does not mean it cannot do any devastating damage before it's gone; including vast floods and powerful winds! Hurricanes in the United States cost an average of $9 billion, devastate families, ruin homes and businesses and entire communities, and pollute the oceans.

Firenadoes look much like a tornado, but act a little more like a dust devil. Dust devils form when intense heat rises from the ground and mixed with just the right conditions of air above it, it creates a swirl that kicks up the dry dust. A firenado is formed from the intense heat of the fire source, stretching out and competing with the colder, surrounding air. This forms a fiery cyclone that can do a lot of damage and continue to spread the flames, but cannot actually leave the heat source and do its own little independent thing. Wildfires cost us over $3 billion and, like a hurricane, can simply take everything down including every being in its path, unapologetically.

Tsunamis are giant, evil, devastating seismic sea waves of doom. Unlike normal waves that are formed from wind or tides, tsunamis are formed from a displacement of water. This displacement can happen from underwater earthquakes, underwater volcanoes or explosions, or from a great impact from above like a landslide or meteor. From the place of impact, tsunamis (Japanese for harbor waves) begin only a few inches tall. But as the ocean becomes more and more shallow toward the shore, the chain of waves grow higher; vacuuming the water toward its crest about 5 minutes before impact. The 2011 tsunami in Japan cost over $300 billion with almost 16,000 dead and 2.5 thousand missing.

Rain is formed from the evaporation of groundwater and water sources like oceans and lakes. This water vapor rises to the atmosphere where it cools down with condensation, forming clouds. These clouds move with winds over great distances and as more of these clouds form, they become heavy and fall back down to the earth as rain. This is known as the water cycle, or the hydrologic cycle. Similarly, when the air is so cold, it crystalizes the rain and enough of these become heavy and fall as snow, sleet, or hail. When there are extended periods of time without rain or precipitation, it can cause a drought. Droughts can devastate food supply, soil quality and absorption, lives and health of all beings, and cost the U.S. an annual $9 billion.

Economically, every single year the world spends over $300 billion on natural disasters and an average of over 67,000 people die across the globe every year, with thousands more severely hurt. As our climate gets warmer, extreme storms will become more frequent and these numbers will rise.

The cause

Rather than listing each itemized statistic for storm increases, they're basically all record-breaking and continuing to do so. Our ancestors once believed that extreme, devastating storms came to us as a consequence of our actions. And sometimes that still holds true today. Except that today, a remedying sacrifice need not come in the form of a goat, but in the form of our comforts, habits, and routines; our fossil fuels. Global warming is the direct cause of increasing strength in natural disasters and the more our planet heats up from it, the more of this you will see. 

As our record-breaking heat waves from climate change continue every year that last longer and with longer summers, the more water is evaporated from soil and water sources. This causes a vast drought that ruins agriculture and feeds fast-moving, devastating wildfires that only need a spark to start. The increase of atmospheric water vapor from this evaporation then travels to other regions and dumps in heavy rainfall that causes flooding due to paved urban areas; bone-dry, low quality soil; or failing dams that cannot support this amount of new water. The same occurs with snow; creating blizzards that shut down entire cities.

Outside of drought and heavier rainfall, global warming does not actually cause the storms, but it does help it out or create them indirectly. The sea absorbs heat from our atmosphere, filtering the temperature naturally. But the more heat, the more it absorbs which creates higher than average temperatures in the oceans and the ocean surface. This mean that when hurricanes naturally form, they have a helping hand to travel farther and stay stronger longer due to being fed by warmer water, which then leads to absolute destruction. Global warming also melts polar ice caps and glaciers that keep the mountains and tectonic plates stable and in check. Thus, without this pressure of ice, this allows for more movement of the plates that can then cause monumental earthquakes. And sometimes this ice acts as a barrier and when it melts away, landslides become more common that can wipe out communities below and form tsunamis when it occurs along the coast.

So, outside of El Niño and other natural causes, the more fossil fuels are burned that lead to global warming, the more devastation we'll see from extreme storms.

Okay maybe this flood was just from playing too much Jumanji.

Okay maybe this flood was just from playing too much Jumanji.

The future

Obviously, the best thing we can do to curb this from happening is by reducing our greenhouse gases and keeping global temperatures to preindustrial times. But even if all fossil fuels stopped being burned today, it would still take a long, long time before we saw recovery because the gases will still be in the atmosphere. Thus, the majority of countries are having to rethink extreme storms. This is our new normal; we have to look to ways that make us more resilient, not just defensive toward these storms. Britain is looking at how to rebuild their coastal buildings to higher levels and with stronger materials that are more water-resistant, to overcome flooding. They are also working to improve their soil quality and reforest their lands so as to be more absorbent. Reforming their straightened rivers back to the curved way they were will create longer rivers and reduce flooding downstream. And finally, they are working to build flood barriers and increase their flood warning systems.

Australia is implementing prescribed fire based on what Aborigines had historically done. This technique burns dry, unneeded areas in a controlled manner that would prevent future fires from going beyond due to not having anything to feed on. Whereas Colorado is thinning out their forests and replacing the trees with more varied species. This biodiversity will deter the fire and slow it down enough to control due to the differentiating treetop heights and variety of woods, rather than the same tree species of the same age. Thus, if we work with Nature to manage these storms, we can negate some of the destructive results and better protect our communities.