The 2020 Hurricane Season Is a Turning Point in Human History

We’ve run out of letters to name our storms, and entered a brand-new, catastrophic era

Photo: NOAA/Getty Images

On Friday, one of the most remarkable moments in recent meteorological history opened a window to our future.

A strengthening swirl of clouds spinning in the central Atlantic earned the name Tropical Storm Wilfred — exhausting the list of 21 alphabetical names given to Atlantic tropical cyclones by the Miami-based National Hurricane Center on the earliest date in history. And then Subtropical Storm Alpha was born off the coast of Portugal. At the same time, a “‘”medicane” — a Mediterranean hurricane — was approaching the Greek islands. And then, just a few hours later and 6,000 miles away, Tropical Storm Beta was named in the western Gulf of Mexico, forecasted to bring days of deluge to storm-weary shores. At no point in the 170 years of Atlantic basin weather history have so many strong storms formed so quickly.

In the Atlantic, tropical storms and hurricanes earn a name once they’ve reached an estimated maximum wind speed of at least 39 miles per hour — generally enough to cause an increased risk of damage from wind, heavy rain, and coastal flooding. If that storm strengthens further with winds of at least 74 miles per hour, it will become a hurricane. Since the 1970s, rapidly advancing weather satellites have helped identify weaker tropical storms more easily — as many as an additional four or five storms per year compared to 100 years ago — but in recent years, the growing numbers and intensity of tropical cyclones can’t be explained just by humans keeping a closer eye out for them.

For decades, meteorologists have worked to understand the impact that a warming climate has on tropical cyclones, which are some of the most intense and deadly weather events our Earth can produce. And this year is only the second time in history that meteorologists ran out of names on their list for Atlantic tropical cyclones. When this happens, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the procedure is to turn to the Greek alphabet for alternatives. The only time this has ever been necessary was in 2005, and so far 2020 is running more than a month ahead of even that breakneck pace.

At this rate, there’s no telling how far we’ll get into the Greek alphabet this year.

The most terrifying thing about this hurricane season, though, is that it’s exactly what scientists expect to count as a normal hurricane season before long — more strong storms, happening over a longer period of time, bringing repeat misery to people on the front lines of climate change. It is the future normal.

This hurricane season has been defined by storms forming in strange locations that rapidly intensify and produce unusually heavy rains — a hallmark of what science says are some of the most clearly defined impacts of a warming climate. If it was 2040, we might not think it was unusual for two tropical systems to simultaneously threaten mainland Europe, but in my entire career as a meteorologist, I’ve sure as hell never heard of anything like that happening before.

In general, the consensus among scientists is that tropical storms — the weakest category of tropical cyclones — won’t become substantially more common as the world warms. However, top-end hurricanes, the kind that rend shorelines and change history, almost certainly will. In fact, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, these changes are already being observed. The chance that a tropical cyclone will reach Category 3 or higher is now 16% greater than it was late last century — just a couple decades ago. Hurricanes are forming further north, producing heavier rainstorms, lingering longer, and intensifying more rapidly than they have in the past, all because of human activity. A few decades from now, it may be common to have a system blossom from a tropical storm to a Category 4 monster in just over 24 hours the day before landfall as Hurricane Laura did. It will always feel terrifying.

Alpha was the easternmost-forming storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, and the strongest fully tropical or subtropical storm in recorded history to strike Portugal. The medicane that churned its way between Italy and Greece was one of the strongest Mediterranean tropical cyclones ever recorded. Both storms were likely made stronger by anomalously warm ocean waters in the regions where they formed, waters warmed by human-caused climate change.

There have been plenty of other weird things happening this year, too, all of which offer an unsettling glimpse into American hurricane seasons to come. Way back in the ancient history of June, Tropical Storm Cristobal became the first tropical cyclone ever to track through the state of Wisconsin, narrowly missing a chance to become the first tropical cyclone ever to track over Lake Superior. At one point in August, Hurricane Isaias simultaneously threatened nearly the entire East Coast of the United States and produced New York City’s worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy of 2012, cutting power to more than 2 million people for days.

On Tuesday, Beta became the first Greek-named tropical cyclone ever to make landfall in the United States, hitting the Texas shore as the record-setting ninth named storm to make landfall just this year in this country. The Texas coast alone has already been hit with two hurricanes this year: Hanna and Laura. Over the weekend, Tropical Storm Beta meandered across the western Gulf of Mexico, and it now threatens the state again with torrential rains over Houston, an extremely unwelcome development just three years after Hurricane Harvey’s 60 inches of rain became the worst freshwater flooding disaster in U.S. history.

Imagine what it feels like to live in Lake Charles, Louisiana right now: Hurricane Laura was the strongest hurricane ever to strike that corner of the state, which happens to be the epicenter of Louisiana’s booming liquified natural gas export industry, and it’s loaded with fracked gas imported from West Texas. The oil and petrochemical industry there has long exploited working class people of color, building toxic facilities in marginalized neighborhoods. The day after Laura made landfall, with a storm surge high enough to wash entire coastal communities off the map, a massive chlorine gas leak prompted a shelter-in-place order for tens of thousands of families. Many didn’t have the means to evacuate the storm in the middle of a pandemic and one of the worst economic downturns in the nation’s history. This week, Beta flooded the Lake Charles region again, inundating coastal communities still reeling from one of the worst disasters that corner of the state had ever seen.

And it’s not just Lake Charles. More than 87% of the U.S. coastline from Texas to Maine has now been under either a tropical storm or hurricane watch or warning this year. Another hurricane making landfall almost anywhere in the country would create repeat trauma.

All of this is to say nothing of the fiery apocalypse engulfing the western states, where decades of warming has killed millions of trees — entire forests — due to insect infestation and drought. Now those forests are all being burned at once, and the smoke has been thick enough to literally blot out the sun. Or of the systematic rollback of environmental protections from the Trump Administration. Or of the continued neglect of folks on the front lines of these changes, marginalized by centuries of colonialist extraction of their lives and lands for profit.

This is a hallmark of the climate emergency: We are increasingly faced with overlapping disasters, and with less and less time to recover, those disasters produce exponentially more damage and heartbreak and suffering.

Since 1990, when the world’s scientists first gathered to assemble an authoritative, consensus message on the threat climate change posed to civilization, humanity’s combined activities have only accelerated the carbon emissions that are warming the planet. A new analysis from Oxfam shows that the world’s richest 1% — people making about $100,000 a year or more — were responsible for more than double the total emissions of the poorest 50% of people on the planet. Climate disasters, like emissions, are accelerating, and the people who did the least to cause it are bearing the brunt of the damage.

And we’ve still got two and a half months left of this hurricane season from the future. It’s possible this season could end up with more than 30 named storms, three times the “normal” number of storms in a single year, three years’ worth of panic and evacuation and rain and wind and rebuilding compressed into one.

When hurricanes cause enough damage, the national governments of the places they impact can petition the WMO to permanently retire the name to avoid future psychological trauma. No one wants to see another Harvey or Maria or Katrina swirling in the Gulf of Mexico. With both Alpha and Beta already causing extensive damage, it’s worth considering: What happens when a Greek name gets retired?

The climate emergency poses strange questions like this on a regular basis.

According to a blog post from the WMO, no Greek letter can be retired from the list of hurricane names. If Beta were to be worthy of retirement, its retired name would be “Beta 2020,” but there could be another Hurricane Beta in the future. However, this policy has never been tested. If Beta 2020 becomes even half as catastrophic as Harvey was, I’d imagine they will revisit that policy. That we’re even contemplating this is, again, completely surreal.

That we are experiencing a hurricane season from the future is a valuable lesson that connects us directly to the lived reality of our sons and daughters when they’re our age. We feel their fear, we sort through their soggy belongings in muddy rooms with twisted trees and the crisp smell of broken pine and whirring chainsaws. We know, deep in the core of our being, that things will never be the same. But we still have time to change their future.

The “medicane” that hit Greece was technically not the responsibility of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, since the Mediterranean is not historically a source region for tropical cyclones. The storm was named by the National Observatory of Athens after Ianos, the Greek god of new beginnings — using a name from a separate list than the one used for the rest of the Atlantic basin.

Ianos has historically been portrayed as having two faces: one looking west, toward the past, and one looking east, toward the future. And what could be a better name, really, for a record-setting storm in a year where we are slowly retiring history as we knew it.

The ancient Greeks invented Western civilization, democracy, even the concept of history itself — more than 3,000 years ago. On our current course, the climate emergency could help end all that and kick off an era that will last thousands of years into a future that will be defined by constant change.

Apocalypse, another Greek word, literally means “revelation” — making visible what was once hidden. Climate scientists have done that work for our civilization, revealing a possible future filled with misery if we continue on our current course. It is up to us to heed the consequences of that knowledge that is now painfully in plain sight. This is our Ianos moment, as stewards of the future and observers of an already-catastrophic past: If we choose, we can begin the transformative work of building a world where climate disaster is not inevitable.

Meteorologist | Climate correspondent

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