Energy & Environment

Florida braces for hurricanes, with Surfside on its mind

Florida is bracing for what is expected to be a furious hurricane season, even as the state deals with the fallout from the trauma of the condominium collapse in the Miami suburb of Surfside.

Tropical Storm Elsa is projected to make landfall across the north Florida Gulf Coast on Wednesday, with meteorologists saying it may become a full hurricane before reaching land.

National Hurricane Center meteorologists predicted hurricane conditions along the state’s west coast Tuesday night into early Wednesday.

“We’re already on our fifth storm of the year and it’s only early July,” Allison Wing, an assistant professor in Florida State University’s Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science Department, told The Hill.

This year’s hurricane season is expected to be above average, with as many as three to five major hurricanes forecast to hit the United States. Overall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts 13 to 20 named storms and six to 10 hurricanes will threaten the United States.

Dmitry Dukhovskoy, an associate research scientist at Florida State University’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies, said if those projections end up being accurate, “we can expect 1-2 hurricanes directly impacting Florida during 2021.”

Hurricane season always brings risks, but the backdrop is different with the collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla.

Elsa has already impacted recovery efforts, and the collapse has raised new questions about the integrity of buildings along the coast that must survive the conditions of South Florida. Thirty-six people have so far been declared dead from the collapse, and more than 100 people are still unaccounted for.

An intense storm season could pose further risks for the state’s coastal infrastructure, according to Dukhovskoy, who said similar dangers exist in other Gulf Coast regions. Hurricanes will bring both strong winds and the flooding risks associated with heavy rain and storm surge.

This can lead to immediate dangers from flooding, as well as more long-term negative effects, such as the corrosion of materials by salt water, Dukhovskoy told The Hill.

“The latter is very dangerous because this impact might not be obvious. Nevertheless, flooding can trigger corrosion inside concrete structures and after several years might lead to a collapse of the building,” he said.

Florida always has to deal with hurricanes, but climate change is steadily raising concerns.

While experts say it’s hard to definitively pin more extreme hurricane seasons on climate change, the effects of climate change are visible in the impacts of the storms, said Wing.

“Sea level rise because of a warming climate makes us more vulnerable to coastal flooding,” she said. “Climate change also contributes to increasing rainfall from hurricanes, so in a warmer atmosphere there’s a capacity to have more moisture in the air and therefore more moisture can fall out as rain.”

Climate change is also likely to amplify the intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms, Wing said, “because hurricanes get their energy from lots of the heat from the ocean’s surface [that is] trapped there, and we have a theory that based on that cycling of the energy through the storm that predicts what the maximum intensity of a hurricane can be.”

The theory, she added, holds that increased heat will in turn lead to more intense hurricanes.

“If there’s more energy available to be extracted out of the climate system by these storms, then they could intensify and/or grow larger in size as they make use of that energy,” said Corene Matyas, a geography professor specializing in tropical climatology at the University of Florida.

After 1992’s Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida, newer structures were subject to tighter building codes, particularly with regard to roof security.

Still, Matyas said, “there are some older structures that haven’t been upgraded.”

“You’ve got risk from wind and risk from water,” she said of Florida’s buildings.

Matyas added that compound flooding, in which sea water at high levels is compounded by rainfall, is also increasingly a risk in coastal areas — something often linked to climate change.

This year, northern and north central Florida have seen heavy rainfall in recent weeks.

Mark Bourassa, a professor of meteorology at Florida State University’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies, told The Hill the globe has seen a period of above-average tropical cyclone activity. That does not guarantee more active seasons or particular serious impacts on Florida, he said, but it does make both more likely.

However, he noted that the upper ocean heat content has also been relatively warm.

As greenhouse gases prevent heat from leaving Earth’s atmosphere, the majority of trapped heat ends up in the ocean, which has significantly warmed the Earth’s oceans in recent decades. According to Climate.gov, oceans’ heat gain rate from 1993-2019 increased from 0.55 to 0.79 watts per square meter.

This means “in the absence of other considerations that the storms are likely to be more intense.” Bourassa told The Hill. “Other considerations are important and can be more important than ocean heat content, such as the vertical shear in winds that are impacting Elsa.”

Wind shear, or changes in wind speed and directions across a straight line, can disrupt hurricanes by essentially blowing them apart and spreading a reduced impact over a wider area.

Tags Climate change Infrastructure Surfside building collapse tropical storm elsa

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