Climate Change Brings Stronger Hurricanes and Threatens Pandemic Response

Published Aug 4, 2020

Senior climate scientist Dr. Astrid Caldas discusses the connections between climate change and more intense hurricanes and underscores the challenges when they converge with COVID-19.

In this episode
  • Astrid and Colleen explore what happens when hurricane season and a pandemic collide?
  • In what ways are hurricane safety protocols at odds with COVID-19 safety protocols?
  • Astrid explains how she became interested in climate science
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:24)
Intro (0:24-2:21)
Interview part 1 (2:21-17:23)
Break (17:23-18:17)
Interview part 2 (18:17-27:30)
Outro (27:30-28:30)

Related content
Show credits

Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Welcome to August, folks. It’s been approximately half a year since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States, and it still doesn’t look like we’ll be done with this pandemic anytime soon. It's also peak hurricane season. And as we've seen in previous episodes, the pandemic has a way of making already difficult events even more difficult. So we're in for some real challenges.

And that’s because the way we should respond to hurricanes is at odds with the way we should act during a pandemic. For example, calling for people in harm’s way to evacuate. A typical hurricane evacuation into packed shelters could easily turn into a super-spreader event. And many of the communities that could get hit are already coping with COVID-related economic hardship, and are unprepared for the damages a storm may bring.

Dr. Astrid Caldas is a senior climate scientist here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and she’s going to walk us through what we need to look out for during this hurricane season. Because this year is unique for a number of reasons—not only is hurricane season coinciding with a pandemic, but 2020 is also the fifth year in a row predicted to have above-average activity.

We recorded this interview in mid-July, before many of this year’s named storms even formed, and we’re releasing this episode as Isaias makes its way up the eastern coast of the United States. We don’t know yet what damage it will do, but we know that this will be an intense season.

Our conversation brings us to what happens when a hurricane meets extreme heat, unemployment, and a pandemic. Astrid explains what climate change means for future hurricanes, both during this pandemic and after, and why the name of the game will be building resiliency.

Colleen: Astrid, welcome to the podcast.

Astrid: Thank you.

Colleen: How is climate change affecting these tropical storms that then turn into hurricanes?

Astrid: Well, climate change is certainly making hurricane seasons worse. And that can be interpreted in many ways. In the past five hurricane seasons we had, we've seen that hurricanes are becoming stronger. They are becoming wetter, more wet, more rain. They are becoming slower. They tend to stall over places and they are also becoming more destructive. And all these trends, unfortunately, have been linked to global warming. But one of the things that is important to note is that the frequency of hurricanes has not been affected by global warming. We're not having more hurricanes. Even though 2019 was the fourth year in a row that we had above-average hurricane activity, there is no scientific evidence that this is caused by global warming.

But a lot of studies have found that the frequency of stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic, which are category 3 or higher, category 3,4 or 5, 5 is the highest. The frequency of the stronger hurricanes has increased. And global warming is probably a factor in that. So that's one of the important things that the science tells us. Another thing that it tells us is that they are becoming strong very fast. We hear last year and particularly heard about hurricanes like 24 hours going from a tropical storm, not a hurricane yet, to a category four or five super fast. And this pattern is not what you would expect by chance from natural variability alone. These higher intensification rates, as we call them, becoming very strong, very fast within 24, 48 hours, they probably have a contribution from global warming, from human burning of fossil fuels.

Colleen: What's happening that is making them intensify so quickly?

Astrid: Well, one of the main things that global warming causes in our climate is the intensification of rain. The rain is one of the characteristics of the hurricanes. However, there are rain events that they're not linked to hurricanes, right? But what we're seeing lately is that there has been a lot of rain associated with a lot of hurricanes, including Hurricane Harvey was a record-setting, in terms of rain. The National Weather Service had even to create a new color for the amount of rain that was falling because they didn't have, had never seen that much rain. And the reason for that is because warmer air holds more water vapor. So the more water vapor in the air, the more water will fall when it turns into rain or snow. In this case, we're talking about rain because we're talking about warm weather and tropical activity.

But the thing is, also with the warmer weather, there is more evaporation, right? And also the seas, the oceans are getting warmer because the oceans are absorbing most of the energy from global warming from the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So with a warmer ocean, the sea surface is warmer and storm sea surfaces are actually the fuel for hurricanes. Hurricanes feed on warm water, surface water. And that's what kind of helps them form. And, of course, more evaporation with the warmer water, even more rain. So that's one of the reasons that these hurricanes have been so destructive and bring so much more rain.

Colleen: Astrid, you grew up in Brazil, correct?

Astrid: Correct.

Colleen: I'm curious how you got interested in studying climate change?

Astrid: That's a very interesting question. And it's actually very straightforward for me because my path to climate change was, I was a professor for almost 25 years. And I taught insect ecology, so population and community ecology of insects. And as a field ecologist, I would go to the field to collect data with the bugs, you know, get the insects information, and count them, and see their interactions and things like that. And year after year, I planned my experiments. And then all of a sudden, I had an experiment planned but the bugs would not be there. They had come out early. Sometimes they came out early, but their food, the plant had not come out yet. And so I started seeing a disconnect between the system, between the different layers of the natural systems, the plants, the insects that eat them, the predators that eat the insects, and so forth. And they took me a few years of no data, a few years of no results, to realize that it was climate change. And at that point, I decided that I really needed to kind of face my enemy and learn a lot about it so that I could really defeat it. Well, I couldn't defeat it, but I left academia. And I got another degree and I completely turned from academia to climate change policy and environmental advocacy, and that kind of stuff. So that's the story.

Colleen: That's so interesting. So you could really see it on the ground happening before your eyes?

Astrid: I could. Yeah, insects are among the first groups of animals that have been shown to respond to global warming. And it's very interesting. And butterflies, in particular, I worked with butterflies and moths. So the butterflies where the first study on climate change was in Europe, showing that some species of butterflies are moving more and more north as the climate was getting warmer. So, yeah, I could totally see it. Then I had my first experience of extreme weather event when I had a huge rainstorm that blew very early in the year. And I had experiments that were little tents on the ground to kind of capture the bugs that were coming from underground. You know, they spend the winter buried and then they come out. And all those little tents were carried away by flood and water. They are somewhere in the bottom of the Chesapeake to this day. I feel bad for polluting the bay.

Colleen: So, I remember when I was a kid growing up, maybe I still hear it now, but I'm thinking back, you would hear about the 100-year storm or the 500-year storm, and I'm curious about where that came from. Is that a real thing?

Astrid: Well, it is a real thing, in the way that it was intended to be. However, people kind of took it out of context. So, the expression 100-year storm or a 500-year storm is very misleading because the year in that expression comes from the probability that a storm is going to happen or can happen in any given year. And that probability is based on the past history of climatic events. So, you know, the very strong rainfall, that's like seven inches in one hour, two hours, whatever. That's very rare in the past. So, the probability of that type of rainfall occurring in any one year was very low. So, that led to the development of the probability of rainstorms. So the so-called 100-year storm is actually a rainstorm that has a 1% chance or a 1 in a 100 chance of occurring in any given year.

So the same is, like, for the 500-year storm, it has a chance of 1 in 500 of happening in any given year. So, whenever you talk of a chance of happening in one year, people kind of started saying that 1 in 100 years, not one chance in one hundred in one year. So that kind of misled the whole idea because a very low probability event is still a possible event and doesn't mean that if it happened today, it's not gonna happen again in 100 years. And particularly now, with global warming and climate change, we're seeing that lots of places are seeing a lot more, for instance, we talk about 100-year rainstorms and 500-year rainstorms, and I think of Houston. Houston, just in the past three years has had several 100-year events and 500-year events. So, we're trying to steer away from that terminology, and we're trying to kind of stick more with the probability of 1%, 0.2% or whatever it is so that people do not think that they are, you know, they're safe since they just had a big storm and 100-year storm so they can remodel their whole house and don't have to worry about another one.

Colleen: I wonder if people who are in areas like Houston are beginning to realize that climate change is here and now and it's happening.

Astrid: They are. A lot of them are. And a lot of people are saying, "I don't want to go through this anymore." They've had their homes flooded two, three times, many of them. And that's also a very heavy burden for the government and for the insurance companies, particularly for the Federal insurance that comes through the National Federal Insurance Program, which, you know, a lot of people draw upon if they are in an area that is prone to flooding. So there are all these cases where people get flooded over and over again, and the government pays for them to fix their house and everything. But even then, people are starting to realize, "I don't wanna go through this again, even if I have insurance, because it's just a huge disruption. It's very dangerous. And I'd rather you know, live where it is not happening anymore." But you see people everywhere, not only Houston, but along the Mississippi River and Midwest, for instance, "This didn't used to be like that. I've never seen the river this high. I've never seen rain like this." So there is a general awareness that things are different. And that's actually very good for general public understanding of the effects of climate change and global warming.

Colleen: Well, I have to say, right now, if I were living in the Southeastern part of the States or the Gulf Coast, I would be very worried about hurricanes and the rise in cases of COVID-19. I mean, as a scientist, what concerns you most about this potential collision?

Astrid: It doesn't look good, does it?

Colleen: No.

Astrid: No, it doesn't. We at UCS have been doing quite a bit of analysis with the COVID compound effects with the natural disasters as we call them, even though they're natural because they are not manmade directly, but they have been influenced by humans. And we see that it's a very tricky situation because of the evacuation process itself. And being in the shelter can be a focus of spreading the disease of COVID if precautions are not taken to avoid social contact and many others, you know, touching surfaces and everything. So, we have to think that if a major hurricane affects a large area of the country, people may not have other options. Shelter options may be limited. Social distancing may not be possible because if it's a huge hurricane, it's millions of people, where is everybody gonna go, right?

So, hurricane evacuation could turn into a super spreader event. And that would be terrible. So, people will have to think about going to a public shelter in the event of a disaster during the pandemic, and what additional precautions that we'll require to ensure the health and safety of everybody. So, we have been looking into emergency responses to develop safe evacuation plans for COVID. And a lot of places, Florida, in particular, has put out a document kind of explicitly talking about evacuation and sheltering during COVID. And this is something that I cannot stress enough that all these measures have to take into account the most socially and economically vulnerable because those are the ones that are gonna be hit the hardest, and are gonna have the hardest time rebounding and recovering. So those have to be very, you know, have to pay attention to those segments of the population also.

Colleen: So I mean, with the lack of federal response or guidelines about the pandemic, who's in charge of coordinating a disaster response should the two collide?

Astrid: Well, even though there is no federal response or guideline about the pandemic, we're seeing that the states are really taking the lead and lots of measures to protect and prevent the spread of the virus. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is still the agency responsible for both COVID response and the recovery from disasters in the United States. So in a hurricane emergency, FEMA is also responsible for preparing evacuations and shelters. And the intersection of the pandemic with the hurricane season is really unprecedented, and it's gonna happen right now. And FEMA has its resources used to the max because of the pandemic already. So, I worry about being prepared for both hurricanes and COVID. It's a very difficult task.

And hurricanes come during the hottest times of the year. So add extreme heat to that equation, and you have people who are gonna have to escape not only the hurricane but people who may already been trying to escape the heat, people who will be struggling, particularly people who are low income, people who don't have air conditioning, they can't afford to turn it on. So there is an additional layer of sheltering and protection that is required, and that FEMA is gonna have to deal with. And, man, I'm telling I wouldn't want to be in FEMA's shoes right now. Oh, and another detail that I'd like to say, Colleen. Black and Latino segments of the population have been shown in studies and statistics to be more affected by COVID. They have also lost their jobs at a higher rate than white people. So, if you put heat, hurricanes, unemployment, and, you know, it's like a triple whammy, and you put COVID to top on that, it's a quadruple whammy. So it's really a bad scenario that we're talking about, unfortunately.


Colleen: Well, I've talked in previous podcast episodes about the disproportionate effect of COVID on African American, Latinx people, and people who are socially and economically vulnerable. What can we do to protect these communities?

Astrid: Yeah, we are saying that this year is really unprecedented, not only with, you know, the things that are happening in the public health climate, we're in the middle of a big heatwave right now here in the south and up to the Mid Atlantic, and social with all the protests, and everything about racism and Black Lives Matter. So, it's a convergence of situations that are really making this year very unique. But our solutions for an effective response must address all the situations that increase the risks, I think, and focus on the health and well being of people, particularly those that have historically been marginalized and discriminated against.

So, we really need policies that provide those underserved communities with the means to really better cope with disasters. So we need to build resilience, as we say it's, you know, in the adaptation and climate practice. Building resilience means giving people the ability to better resist impact, not just recover from it. It's a way of kind of, I'm gonna hold on better than I did in the past. And we need policies that will improve living conditions, provide equitable disaster relief because, unfortunately, studies more than one have shown that disaster relief discriminates against certain segments of the population, perpetuating inequity and increasing the gap between wealth and poor. So we need the policies at all levels, federal, state, local, and think ahead so that we can be prepared when there is a confluence of problems, you know, there is a collision of health, social-economic crisis. So, yeah, we need to be ready.

Colleen: So, Astrid, if I gave you a direct line to Congress or could set you up, you know, with a private meeting, what are the solutions that you would advocate for sort of most strongly like your top five, we need to do these things immediately?

Astrid: Oh, boy.

Colleen: I've given you the power.

Astrid: I've got the power. So I would say I start with safe and stable public housing or housing that is affordable to all segments of the population. And by safe, I mean, not only the structure but the location, right? So that the people who are low income and who are minorities are not in the places that are gonna be hit worst by the natural disasters. In terms of the heat waves that are increasing, and that compound the risks, not only of the pandemic, but of hurricanes and everything else, I would say that we have some mandates for heating. We have a basic kind of standard for heating and housing. So we need to have air conditioning also to cool people during the hotter months.

Of course, universal healthcare, I think that's a very important thing because we are seeing right now that with COVID, a lot of minorities, Black and Latinos are being hit the worst because not only do they have to go out to work because a lot of them work in what is considered essential segments of the economy, but they also do not have regular medical care. So that puts them more at risk. And safe housing, again, they live in areas that have a lot of pollution, environmental problems. So all this compounds everything. So protections for workers that are paid by the hour, a lot of these people, if a disaster hits, they don't get money, they don't get paid. So they get their situation even worse because then they cannot evacuate, they cannot protect themselves, they cannot get food, and it's horrible. So all this brings me to anti-racist practices and, you know, some sort of regulations, legislations that really look into the most vulnerable, and that really stop perpetuating inequities and racism in our country, which is a huge, huge problem.

Colleen: You know, it's interesting, Astrid, thinking since we've all been working from home, and I'm up here in the northeast in the Boston area, and it's summertime now, and we're just about to head into a heatwave. And I don't have air conditioning at my house, I have one small room where I have a little window air conditioner because mostly I'm going into the office and on hot days, it's air-conditioned. But it’s really made me think people that don't have air conditioning, they're living in, Florida, they're living in places where you can't survive without air conditioning, and, with COVID, you suddenly have...I mean maybe people can go to a cooling center, but if you can't be in a space with other people because now you're at risk of getting COVID, it's really challenging for people who don't have resources. I mean it just really brings it home.

Astrid: It does, You're putting these people in an impossible situation, right? You have to make a decision because both decisions are health decisions. Because we know that extreme heat can have a lot of implications on the human body

But the thing is a lot of people who have pre-existing conditions also, they cannot afford to be in the heat. So, you put all those things together and really to make decisions of what's the worst evil, it's not something that we'll wanna put anybody in. It's not a situation that anybody should be in. And we are seeing that with the extreme heat, which is increasing a lot. We did, at UCS, a study called Killer Heat that projected extreme heat days into the future. And the spread of extreme heat days in areas that are not used to seeing even 90 degree days regularly is just unbelievable. And a lot those places like you said, don't have air conditioning because they never needed it. So, now there's going to be the need for air conditioning and there's going to be the demand in our energy supply and power grid. So these things are cascading effects that we can't even imagine, you know, all the extension of everything.

Colleen: So let's talk for a minute, just about climate solutions because we need to adapt, but we also need to solve the root problem. What solutions would you put forward?

Astrid: Well, the main thing that we need is to kind of stop global warming on its tracks, right? We know that we are not at an irreversible point. Two years ago, at the end of 2018, there were studies that were released both by the U.S. government, the National Climate Assessment and by Inter-government Panel on Climate Change, an international body of thousands of scientists. And they both have the same conclusion. We have warmed 1.8 Fahrenheit, one-degree centigrade, one Celsius. And at this point, we're already seeing a lot of problems, like the hurricane densification, like extreme rain events, and biodiversity loss, and the coral reefs, and the warming of the ocean. But we are not at a point where we cannot reverse it. If we slow down the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, right now we start the process, we can get to a point where the worst of all these very bad impacts of global warming will be avoided. So, what we say and what the IPCC, which is the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, recommends and talks is a complete change, a deep change in our thinking and in our lifestyles.

That might lead to a perfect, you know, situation where we can really slow down global warming. UCS did a study back in 2012 or 2013, that said that if everybody in the United States at that time, reduced their carbon footprint by 20%, it would be the equivalent of closing one-third of the U.S. coal-fired plants. So that's a huge amount of emissions. So why not do something? Why not think about changing something now when I can, as opposed to in the future having to change things because there is no other way, right?

Colleen: Right. Sort of an all hands on deck individuals to state, to governments to countries. Well, Astrid, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

Astrid: Oh, you're welcome. This has been fun. Thank you for having me.

Colleen: Thank you.

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