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Our Blue Marble's unique temperature range supports water in all its three glorious phases (solid, liquid, gas). Phase transitions between liquid water and water vapor involve tremendous amounts of energy, and this energy helps fuel hurricanes. Sweeping across warm waters, winds can gather water from a vast stretch, sometimes to catastrophic effect. For example, Hurricane Harvey pummeled Houston with 9 trillion gallons of water, releasing about 76 x 1018 Joules of energy. Harvey was joined by Mathew, Maria, Irma, Florence, Michael, Dorian, and Imelda. According to NOAA data, in 2015–2019, extreme hurricanes caused $315 billion in damages. Between 2000 and 2019, these extremes caused $746 billion in damages. Climate change attribution for cyclones is difficult, given their complexity and rarity. A summary of a recent World Meteorological Organization study introduces event “detection” and “attribution,” as well as the new “storyline” approach to event attribution. Like an autopsy, storyline attribution can indicate whether climate change was one probable cause of an extreme event. From this perspective, climate change has likely contributed to the increased frequency and intensity of exceptionally strong hurricanes. The chapter concludes by discussing two important storyline attribution studies focused on very strong Atlantic hurricanes.
Linking a warming atmosphere, droughts, and more extreme precipitation is our thin, thin atmosphere. If the Earth were a basketball, the atmosphere would be 0.03-inch or 0.8-mm thick, literally whisker deep. The amount of water vapor contained in this air is strongly controlled by temperature. Warmer air holds more atmospheric water vapor, resulting in more extreme precipitation. Rainfall observations indicate that global precipitation extremes have already increased by more than 8 percent. If the observed trend continues, a similar-magnitude increase is likely over the next thirty years. This is very concerning, because extreme precipitation events are already extremely dangerous and costly. Between 1998 and 2017, floods, storms, and hurricanes affected more people than any other type of disaster, impacting 2.7 billion people overall resulting in $1.99 trillion of recorded economic losses. 2015–2019 disaster data suggests that the most dangerous non-cyclone storms affected 223 million people, led to more than 9,000 deaths, and resulted in $80 billion in damages. There is solid observational and model-based evidence supporting the link between a warming atmosphere and more intense precipitation extremes, and clear evidence that these extremes are having deadly and costly impacts today.
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