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How climate change is fueling destructive storms like Ian

Videos show destructive wake of Hurricane Ian
Rescue crews piloted boats and waded through flooded streets Thursday to save thousands of Floridians trapped after Hurricane Ian destroyed homes.

Tropical Storm Ian charted a path of destruction across Florida on Thursday. It’s now headed up toward the Carolinas, where it’s expected to wreak more havoc.

Scientists haven’t yet attributed the storm to climate change, but it certainly bears hallmarks of the crisis.

Ian intensified by 67 percent in less than 22 hours from Monday to Tuesday. Then, from Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, Ian quickly strengthened from a Category 3 storm to nearly a Category 5.

This kind of “rapid intensification,” as scientists call it, used to be exceedingly rare. But it’s becoming more common amid the climate crisis, which is pushing up ocean temperatures.


Technically, rapid intensification indicates an increase of at least 35 miles per hour in the maximum sustained winds over 24 hours. Ian officially met that threshold on Monday.

Storms pick up speed when they move over warm parts of oceans — it’s why they so often form in the tropics. Ian, in particular, gained steam fast when it moved over warm waters in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

As we burn fossil fuels and spew out greenhouse gases, oceans are heating up, so this kind of intensification is happening more.

Since the 1980s, the likelihood of a hurricane undergoing rapid intensification has increased from 1 percent to 5 percent, studies show. Since 2017, 30 other Atlantic tropical storms have undergone rapid intensification.

Climate change is also heating up air temperatures. Warmer air can hold more water vapor, meaning storms are getting wetter, raising the risk of damages from floods.

As it moved out of Florida on Thursday, Ian weakened into a tropical storm — but as it moves back over the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, it will likely regain its strength.

“Ian is expected to become a hurricane again this evening and make landfall as a hurricane on Friday,” the National Hurricane Center said.


Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.