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Climate change is to blame for the extreme rain of Hurricane Maria



Climate change is to blame for the extreme rain of Hurricane Maria

On September 19, 2017, Hurricane Maria approaches the maximum intensity and moves north towards Puerto Rico. Credit: Naval Research Laboratory / NOAA.

According to recent research, Hurricane Maria caused more rain in Puerto Rico than any storm that hit the island since 1956, a feat due mainly to the effects of human-induced climate warming.

A new study analyzing the history of hurricanes in Puerto Rico reveals that the Maria of 2017 had the highest average rainfall of the 129 storms that hit the island in the last 60 years. A storm of Maria's magnitude is almost five times more likely to be formed now than during the 1950s, an increase due in large part to the effects of human-induced warming, according to the study's authors.

"What we discovered was that the magnitude of Maria's maximum rainfall is much more likely in the 2017 climate when it occurred compared to the record start in 1950," said David Keellings, geographer at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and author principal of The new study in the magazine of AGU. Geophysical research letters.

Previous studies have attributed Hurricane Harvey's record of rainfall to climate change, but no one had analyzed Maria's rainfall in depth, which affected Puerto Rico less than a month after Harvey devastated Houston and the Gulf Coast. Extreme rains during both storms caused unprecedented floods that placed them among the three most expensive hurricanes recorded (the other was Hurricane Katrina in 2005).

According to the authors, the new study adds to the growing evidence that the warming caused by the human being makes extreme weather events like these more common.

Climate change is to blame for the extreme rain of Hurricane Maria

Comparison of lights at night in Puerto Rico before (above) and after (below) Hurricane Maria. Credit: NOAA.

"Some things that are changing in the long term are associated with climate change, such as the fact that the atmosphere is getting warmer, the rise in the temperature of the sea surface and the fact that there is more moisture available in the atmosphere, together they make it more likely that it is Maria, in terms of its magnitude of precipitation, "Keellings said.

Building a history of rain.

José Javier Hernández Ayala, climate researcher at Sonoma State University in California and co-author of the new study, is originally from Puerto Rico and his family was directly affected by Hurricane Maria. After the storm, Hernandez Ayala decided to partner with Keellings to see how Maria was compared to the previous storms that hit the island.

The researchers analyzed the rainfall of the 129 hurricanes that have hit Puerto Rico since 1956, the first year with records they could rely on. They discovered that Hurricane Maria produced the highest maximum daily rainfall of those 129 storms: a whopping 1,029 millimeters (41 inches) of rain. That places Maria among the 10 most humid hurricanes that have hit the territory of the United States.

"Maria is more extreme in her haste than anything else the island has seen," Keellings said. "I just did not expect it to be much more than anything else that has happened in the last 60 years."

Climate change is to blame for the extreme rain of Hurricane Maria

Maria's infrared satellite loop that passes east of the Dominican Republic on September 21, after leaving Puerto Rico. Credit: NOAA.

Keellings and Hernandez Ayala also wanted to know if Maria's extreme rainfall was the result of natural climate variability or longer-term trends, such as man-made warming. To do this, they analyzed the probability of an event like María's happening in the 1950s against current events.

They discovered that an extreme event like María was 4.85 times more likely to occur in the 2017 climate than in 1956, and that change in probability can not be explained by natural climate cycles.

At the beginning of the observation record in the 1950s, a storm like Mary would probably drop as much rain once every 300 years. But in 2017, that probability was reduced to approximately once every 100 years, according to the study.

"Due to anthropogenic climate change, we are now much more likely to get these hurricanes that shed huge amounts of precipitation," Keellings said.

The findings show that human influence on hurricane precipitation has already begun to be evident, according to Michael Wehner, a climate scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., Who was not connected to the new study. Because much of Maria's damage was due to flooding caused by extreme rainfall, it's safe to say that some of that damage was exacerbated by climate change, Wehner said.

"Extreme precipitation during tropical cyclones has increased due to climate change," he said. "Not all storms have a lot of flooding in the interior, of freshwater floods, but of those that do, floods are increased to some extent by climate change."


Landslides caused by Hurricane Maria


More information:
David Keellings et al, Extreme rainfall associated with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and its connections to climate variability and change, Geophysical research letters (2019). DOI: 10.1029 / 2019GL082077

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Climate change is to blame for the extreme rains of Hurricane Maria (2019, April 16)
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