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2020 Hurricane Season Sets New Devastating Records And Is Not Over Yet

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The 2020 hurricane season has been uniquely awful. There have been 30 named storms so far - a new record. And six of those storms have been devastating, major hurricanes, including Hurricane Iota, which hit Central America this week. It's impossible to talk about what's happened this year without talking about climate change. And Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team is here with us.

Hi, Becky.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the records that this year has already set, remembering that hurricane season is not yet over. What are the numbers?

HERSHER: Yeah, we still have a couple weeks to go. But even now, before the season is over, there are already new records. So as you pointed out, 2020 has already had the most named storms ever recorded. That includes hurricanes and tropical storms. And of course, those that did become full-blown hurricanes - there are six of those that have hit the U.S. That is also a record in its own right.

And if we focus on the most recent major storm, Hurricane Iota - that also set a record. Iota is the latest Category 5 hurricane ever recorded. Usually by this time of year, really powerful hurricanes are a lot less likely. And I should say storms can form after hurricane season officially ends at the end of November. The Earth doesn't really care about the calendar.

SHAPIRO: So put this into context for us. What's going on? How does this fit into global warming and climate change?

HERSHER: Well, you know, it's all about the warmer water. The oceans have soaked up the vast majority of the extra heat that's trapped by greenhouse gases. So ocean temperatures are rising, and that includes the water near the surface of the Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico. The water there is significantly warmer this year than it was on average 50 or a hundred years ago. Here's the thing. Heat is energy. It's the energy that storms use to get big and to get dangerous. So more heat in the water means more chances for these big, powerful storms to form.

SHAPIRO: Is it possible to trace the impact of that extra hot water to a particular storm?

HERSHER: Yeah, and you can see it in different ways in different storms. So some of the early storms this year - they dumped a lot of rain - so Isaias, for example. There was a lot of flood damage. And studies have tied extreme rain directly to hotter water that helps storms suck up more moisture. Another thing is rapid intensification. That's when a storm's wind speeds increase really fast - by at least 35 miles an hour in 24 hours. It happened with Hurricane Iota. It happened with Hurricane Eta, which hit basically the same place a couple weeks ago. And I talked to a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research about it. Her name is Rebecca Morse.

REBECCA MORSE: This season has just been something that no one could have believed. Watching those hurricanes rapidly intensify in the Gulf is just crazy.

HERSHER: Here's the thing. Rapid intensification - it's not that common - or it wasn't that common. But climate models suggest that climate change could make it more common because of hotter air and hotter water. And this year seems to be a textbook case of that. There have been 10 storms that rapidly intensified this year.

SHAPIRO: Well, if climate change means these trends are only going to get worse, what does all of this mean for people who live on the coasts in the potential paths of these storms?

HERSHER: Right. On one hand, it means that for people who were born and raised in hurricane-prone areas - maybe they've survived storms in the past, but the storms that they're facing now or they might face in the future are more likely to be really deadly and destructive. It also comes with mental health impacts. You know, as storm forecasting gets better, it also means that we know, you know, when a storm is headed for land days in advance. And that's good, right? It helps people prepare. But it's also exhausting, especially in a year like this one, when people along the Gulf Coast were on alert for basically months.

And it's also really expensive. You know, as of October 7, there have been 16 climate-driven disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damage. That is tied with the record. So climate change is really expensive, and hurricanes are a big part of that.

SHAPIRO: That's Rebecca Hersher of NPR's climate team.

Thanks for putting this into perspective for us.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.