(That’s not to say that fire departments like Calfire aren’t extremely good at what they do. The successful evacuation of South Lake Tahoe is proof of that: more than 20,000 people have managed to escape. get out, long before the fire reached the outskirts of town.)
As with fires, one of the factors that cause hurricanes is heat. “Coastal waters are warming considerably,” says Misra of Florida State University. As Hurricane Ida moved over the Gulf of Mexico, it fed on unusually warm water, resulting in fierce winds as the storm made landfall.
Hurricanes are complex phenomena, of course, so there are other factors involved, such as the state of the atmosphere at any given time. Scientists need more data to fully understand the rapidly escalating trend. Warmer water, says Misra, “does not necessarily mean that all storms that make landfall will end up being stronger than current storms. But that should certainly sound the alarm bells.
The same is true of the fact that a warmer atmosphere retains more moisture. “Under the right conditions, when convection occurs, it will extract more moisture from the same volume of air in a future hot climate than the current climate,” says Misra. “So the threat of the tropical cyclone, whether it intensifies quickly or not more frequently in the future, will be much greater, with more rain coming out. The winds of a hurricane weaken once it makes landfall, as it no longer feeds on the warm waters of the Gulf. But it continues to pour rain as it moves inland, which could lead to devastating flooding in the southern and eastern states.
Hurricane forecasters can accurately predict a storm’s track several days in advance, providing state and local governments with invaluable data to inform evacuations; these models work and save countless lives. But climate change will create new challenges for modeling, as it changes the behavior of hurricanes. “Most of our weather forecasting models don’t do a great job of predicting rapid intensification,” says Misra. “So this in itself is a huge problem in preparing to mitigate the impact of the hurricane.”
The extreme ferocity of natural disasters today also makes it more difficult for citizens to analyze their own risks. “People set their expectations based on their past experiences, and that stuff is outside of people’s experiences,” says Ann Bostrom, a risk communication researcher at the University of Washington. “A hurricane or a forest fire reaching a higher intensity is faster than what people have experienced. Someone who could have stayed at home safely in one of these disasters 20 years ago, either because he refused to leave or because he could not afford it, can very well find oneself today in great danger.
While rapidly escalating hurricanes are dangerous for everyone, it is the worst for people who don’t have the resources to get out of them quickly. “Many of the people who live along the coast are either extremely rich or extremely poor,” says Kyle Burke Pfeiffer, director of the National Preparedness Analytics Center at Argonne National Laboratory. And for the poor, he continues, “maybe they don’t have access to a vehicle, or maybe they don’t have the funds or the ability to leave their jobs or their homes. And, quite often, they live in structures that are not designed to withstand the external loads placed on them by various hazards, such as hurricanes.
California has a similar problem: Astronomical housing prices along the coast have pushed more people east into the state’s wild urban interface, where cities meet forest. Paradise is one of those cities, as is South Lake Tahoe. “With more people in these areas, and the fact that [the areas are] drier – leads to more ignitions near communities, ”says Cova, of the University of Utah. So fires tend to start closer to town and go faster. “It affects evacuations, as the time available may be less than you need, as it was in Heaven.” Retirees, in particular, flock to these places, but older residents who have mobility issues will find it more difficult to evacuate when a fire approaches.