Hurricane Harvey | NASA VIA NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The start of the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season draws near prompting me to reflect on last year’s devastating hurricane season which saw the crippling of our sister isles of Barbuda, Dominica, and Puerto Rico, as well as destruction in several other islands. Last year, Hurricane Maria alone caused an estimated 68 Billion USD in damages in Puerto Rico and led to the loss of 44 lives on the island based on data from the International Disaster Database. The same source estimates collective damage in the Caribbean at 76,644 million (USD), with over 10 million people affected by these storms1.

Throughout its history, the Caribbean has suffered greatly at the hands of the Atlantic hurricanes, with an estimated $835 million USD in damages across the region annually2. The damage wrought by these hurricanes is exacerbated by the enduring legacy of colonialisation, which has contributed to the underdevelopment and high levels of inequality in the region. These factors contribute to the resulting devastation wreaked by natural disasters in the region3, with the high level of social inequality and poverty leaving citizens vulnerable in the aftermath of natural disasters, particularly women and children. In the aftermath of these natural disasters, past recovery efforts have been shown to be riddled with examples of corruption and ineptitude, particularly in the most vulnerable countries4,5.

Historically, the region has experienced difficulty in fully recovering from such natural disasters 6, in part due to the low prevalence of insurance, which is used in developed countries to alleviate some of the economic burden of recovery7. The economic damage caused by a major hurricane can be disastrous as shown in Grenada in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, which drove the country into a $54 million USD deficit8.

*Dominica | Tomás Ayuso/Irin*

Using data from the International Disaster Database, I analyzed the last thirty (30) years of Caribbean storm data from 1987 to 2017.

The following graph shows the number of storms reported to have caused at least some damage for the period 1987 – 2017. Each triangle represents a storm, which made landfall in a specific country, with the height of the triangle corresponding to the amount of damage caused, the width of the its base corresponding to the total number of persons affected, and the color corresponding to the total number of deaths.

From the graph we can see that while the number of storms causing damage may not vary significantly, the number of storms causing at least $1 billion in damages seems to be increasing. Last year, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria each caused more than 60 billion USD in damages, using 2016 dollars. These are the most costly storms in the region’s history dwarfing the approximately 15 billion USD in damages caused by Hurricane George in 1998 9.

Using the International Disaster Database, we see that the estimated damage from hurricanes in 1987 was approximately 179 million USD. The estimated damage from last year topped off at approximately 76 billion USD, though this was largely driven by the exceptional costs associated with Irma and Maria.

*Dominica | Tomás Ayuso/Irin**

The forecast for this year’s Atlantic Hurricane Season anticipates a higher than average number of storms, which endangers islands that have yet to recover from last year’s devastation. There has been much public debate over whether the increasing severity of tropical storms can be attributed to climate change, however, evidence has shown that the damage wrought by hurricanes has increased in recent times.

To understand the role climate change may play in the frequency and severity of hurricanes, one must understand the science of what causes hurricanes. The video below by the New York Times explains the key processes involved the formation of hurricanes:

Hurricanes require warm waters near the surface of the ocean as their source of energy and cooler surrounding temperatures. As the warm air rises it pushes the cooler air to the surface where it is in turn heated creating a cycle which propels the hurricane. Climate change is expected to raise the global oceans’ temperatures creating a conducive environment for hurricane formation10. Therefore as ocean temperatures rise between 0.3 and 2.5 degrees (by most recent estimates) over the next 100 years, we can expect more frequent and more severe storms.

This means last year’s destruction could well be the new normal for our region. As we combat the likely effects of climate change, which are likely to mean that disasters, such as droughts, heatwaves and hurricanes become more common, we are tasked with finding ways to make our countries more resilient to climate disasters. This would require us to rethink everything from land use zoning and building construction regulations to carbon emissions.

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Notes