On Aug. 30, the National Hurricane Center, NHC, classified Tropical Storm Irma. By Sept. 4, Irma was considered a Category 4 hurricane, which then strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane with record wind speeds of 175 mph the next day. Hurricane Irma sustained 185 mph wind for 37 hours, becoming the second strongest Atlantic hurricane by wind speed and the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin. Hurricane Irma’s impact on Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Martin, Anguilla, Turks, Caicos, Bahamas, Cuba and the United States totaled in 81 confirmed deaths and $62.7 billion in damage. On Sept. 15, Ronald Sanders, the Antigua and Barbuda ambassador to the United States, commented that, “for the first time in 300 years, there’s not a single living person on the island of Barbuda.”
However, talking about the intensity of Hurricane Irma has sparked discussion on climate change in the general public. Climate change has been a highly debated topic in the past year as the United States government has switched its approach on the issue due to the transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration.
President Donald Trump, who himself disclosed through Twitter his belief that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, selected Scott Pruitt for the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has long opposed environmental regulations and questioned climate change. On March 9, Pruitt admitted that he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
“I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” said Pruitt.
However, scientists disagree. Author of paper Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming, Dr. John Cook, found that “among papers expressing a position on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), an overwhelming percentage (97.2 percent) endorses the scientific consensus on AGW.”
Because of the human caused buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels, ocean temperatures are increasing and creating stronger hurricanes. Hurricanes, which derive their energy from warm ocean waters and warm atmosphere conditions, are created when moisture evaporates and rises until heated moist air is twisted in the atmosphere. Over the past two years, the planet has witnessed the most intense hurricanes on record for the globe.
Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the government’s National Center for Atmospheric Research, explained the phenomenon on PBS NewsHour on Nov. 12, 2013.
“So, the sea temperatures are higher by over a degree Fahrenheit or so on a global basis because of global warming, because of human influences,” said Trenberth. “And going along with that, the air in the atmosphere is warmer and moister. And that’s what fuels all of these storms. The environment that all of these storms are occurring in is simply different than it used to be because of human activities.”
Professor Jessica Schedlbauer, acting Vice Chair of the Sustainability Advisory Council and associate biology professor at West Chester University specializing in ecosystem ecology, commented on climate change causing hurricanes.
“My understanding of the current scientific consensus is that, in respect to these extreme weather events including hurricanes, the jury is still out. Part of the reason for this is because we don’t have enough data yet, and that is why it’s so tricky to think about future effects of climate change,” said Schedlbauer. “With that said, what we do know is that from about the 1950s, we’ve seen an increase in extreme weather events. But the data to tie those increases in climate are still coming in. We know that air temperatures have gotten warmer, we know that ocean temperatures have gotten warmer, we know that around half of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers from the coast and we know that sea levels are rising. Since we have a high degree of certainty of these factors increasing, those things are troubling in context of hurricanes. We have gotten rid of a lot of coastal barriers that help protect us from tropical storms and hurricanes, such as wetlands and mangroves. So, the potential for damaging human impacts are greater because we’ve degraded our coastal ecosystems.”
“It’s really tricky,” Schedlbauer said, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have stated they haven’t gotten enough data to connect climate change and hurricanes. It would be more helpful if the federal government would take more of a leadership role, but they’re not, so it falls on the shoulders of individuals working at smaller scales to fix this.”
On June 1, Trump announced that the United States of America would no longer participate in the Paris Agreement stating that, “the Paris accord will undermine the (U.S.) economy.” The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in which all 195 countries initially agreed to adopt on Dec. 12, 2015. The decision to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement was faced by strong criticism, particularly from scientists and environmentalists.
Jason Miller, West Chester University biology student, shows his frustration with the recent attacks on the scientific community:
“I feel that in the current state of our country, it is extremely important to spread the education of the biological sciences. We are living under a regime that cuts necessary funding to the sciences and specifically to the field of conservation. If we do nothing and do not make any noise, then people lose sight of what is changing in science due to politics. Hell, we might actually get to a point where people think the best disaster relief for the current storms is sitting in the Oval Office and praying for it all to go away. We need to show people what they’re up against and educate them on the scientific root-cause. Education will be the key to the success of the sciences, and I am hopeful that everyone will play their part,” said Miller.
For students interested in contributing to hurricane relief, there are numerous local opportunities. Alpha Phi Omega has partnered with Baked to fundraise all day on Sept. 18, where 10 percent of Baked sales will be donated to the Houston Food Bank. The Red Cross will hold a blood drive on Sept. 27 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with donation opportunities for victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma.
Sykes is also hosting Sustainability Research Seminars on a variety of topics every Wednesday from noon to 12:50 p.m. in Sykes Union for the entire fall semester.
Regan Wilson is a fourth-year student majoring in biology specializing in ecology and conservation with a minor in psychology. They can be reached at RW821864@wcupa.edu or on Twitter @ReganRWilson.