September 27, 2022 Hurricane Fiona Caught Communities Off Guard. Will Ian Follow Suit?

A man and his dog walk past a sign reading,' Bark Off Ian, No Treat for you,' painted on a building that is boarded up for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. Ian is expected in the Tampa Bay area Wednesday night into early Thursday morning. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A man and his dog walk past a sign reading,' Bark Off Ian, No Treat for you,' painted on a building that is boarded up for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. Ian is expected in the Tampa Bay area Wednesday night into early Thursday morning. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Fiona, technically, was no longer a hurricane by the time it hit Newfoundland early Saturday. But for the residents of Canada’s most easterly province, which hugs the Atlantic Ocean, it was the most powerful storm they’ve seen in their lifetimes.

The post-tropical cyclone, which had already devastated Puerto Rico with massive flooding earlier in the week, made landfall in Eastern Canada with Category 2 hurricane strength, tearing the roofs off of schools, waterlogging roads and playgrounds and washing entire homes into the sea. On Monday, hundreds of buildings across Canada’s eastern provinces had been damaged or destroyed in the storm and more than a quarter million customers remained without power.

Forecasters called Fiona “historic.” Others described it as “unprecedented,” “unbelievable” or “breathtaking.” One resident of Channel-Port aux Basques, a small town on the southern shore of the province, described the siding of her home disintegrating and flying into the air “just like confetti at a wedding.”

To longtime climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, however, a better way to describe Fiona would be “a pink elephant with polka dots.”

Ekwurzel, who has studied global warming since 1991 and is now the director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, borrowed the phrase from another climate researcher to describe how the consequences of the planet’s rising temperatures are largely outpacing all scientific expectations. The connection between more destructive storms and climate change has been well established, but Ekwurzel said the issue has become larger than that.

Not only is global warming making natural disasters like storms, wildfires and heat waves more frequent and severe, she told me, but they’re also occurring in unexpected places and playing out in unexpected ways that often baffle the science community’s understanding of the world—like discovering a pink elephant with polka dots in nature: a reality no one imagined was possible.

Ekwurzel said the metaphor can be seen everywhere. It’s in the unexpected way Hurricane Dorian hovered for days over Gulf Coast states in 2019, causing massive flood damage. It’s in the way wildfires are cropping up in ancient sequoia groves in California, killing off hundreds of trees once thought impervious to fire damage. And it’s in the way record-shattering heat waves are blowing modern precedent out of the water, like the heat wave that killed some 800 people in the Pacific Northwest last summer, or the one this summer that brought temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit to the United Kingdom for the first time in modern history. 

It’s the bizarre polar vortex that disabled the Texas power grid last winter; the massive monsoon rains that submerged a third of Pakistan underwater this summer; the way that Hurricane Ian, currently on its way toward the Florida coast, supercharged from a tropical storm to a major hurricane overnight and is now expected to hit the city of Tampa with Category 3 strength.

“As scientists, we are not finding the language to tell people what’s really going on,” Ekwurzel said. “In a way, our statistics are failing us” because “we’re getting into uncharted territory” and “our models only show what we know, which is based on the past.”

In Fiona’s case, people in Puerto Rico were caught off guard not because of the windforce, which dictates the categorical strength of a hurricane, but by its massive output of rain. Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm when it hit the U.S. territory five years earlier, was considered far more powerful than Fiona. But when the Category 1 storm made landfall on the island last week, it left many Puerto Ricans shocked by how much damage it caused. One video, which was widely shared online and in the news, shows floodwaters overtaking and destroying a recently built metal bridge, as bystanders watch in disbelief.

It was a similar situation in Newfoundland and other eastern Canadian provinces. While those living along Canada’s Atlantic coast were no strangers to powerful winds, such as the 70 mile-per-hour winds produced by Fiona, most of them weren’t prepared for its storm surge. In fact, the waves Fiona created were so large, they reached homes that had safely existed on the coastline for nearly a century.

It wasn’t the wind Newfoundlanders were worried about, a local newspaper editor told the New York Times. “We’re used to that,” he said. “But what we’re not used to is 30-, 40-, 50-foot waves coming up onto the roads, moving houses 60 feet or just completely vaporizing them.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed a similar sentiment at a press conference on Saturday, as he promised that his country was quickly working to better prepare communities for the new reality climate change is creating. “Whether it was wildfires this past summer, whether it was the terrible flooding in BC just last year, we know there is a need for more resilient infrastructure,” he told reporters, adding that a “one in a 100 year storm” is now “hitting every few years instead of every century.”

But even Trudeau’s speech shows that humanity is preparing for the past, Ekwurzel told me, and scientists need to better convey just how quickly the goalpost of climate change is shifting. In most cases, she said, cities, states and countries are using outdated benchmarks in their plans to mitigate and adapt to global warming.

For something like the so-called “one in a 100 year storm,” which essentially means a storm of such magnitude that it has a 1 percent chance of happening every year, the term itself is outdated, since such storms are already happening far more regularly, Ekwurzel said. “A one in a 100 year storm, the way people understand it, I think we’re not conveying what that statistic means,” she said. “A 1,000 year storm, at this point, is probably what people should be talking about—that’s what we should be designing our infrastructure for because that will soon be upon us.”

Though powerful storms like those are still rare, they’re becoming more extreme when they do occur, said Jill Trepanier, an associate professor at Louisiana State University who studies hurricanes, extreme weather phenomena and climate change. “I think of it like this,” Trepanier told me in an email. “The average hurricane of today is not the average hurricane of the past. While Category 5 storms will still be rare, they will become more frequent, and the storm someone is ‘used to’ will likely become a slightly higher level.”

As Ian makes its way toward Florida, after lashing western Cuba Monday night, forecasters are warning that the state’s west coast could see “life threatening storm surge” of up to 12 feet, starting as soon as Tuesday evening, along with 6 to 12 inches of rain. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged residents to take the threat seriously, and officials have ordered more than 2.5 million people to evacuate.

While Ian is expected to be less intense than Hurricane Michael, which flattened Florida’s Mexico Beach in 2019 with 160 mile-per-hour winds and as much as 14 feet of storm surge, Ian would mark the first time in 100 years that Tampa has suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane, said Allison Wing, an assistant professor of atmospheric science at Florida State University.

That’s particularly worrisome, Wing told me, since flooding—both from storm surge and rainfall—is the leading cause of death in tropical storms and the Tampa region is “incredibly vulnerable to storm surge.”

In that sense, Hurricane Ian could very well be Tampa’s one in a 100 year storm—another historic disaster to add to the quickly growing list of such catastrophes that keep catching communities off guard.

For Ekwurzel, she hopes the tragedies of 2022 will be a wake up call for lawmakers, business leaders and other people in power, showing them that incremental steps to address climate change aren’t cutting it, and in fact, the world should be preparing for much worse. “These are our neighbors and our friends, and people are losing their faith in leadership,” she said. In other words, we need to start preparing for “pink elephants with polka dots.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

James Bruggers contributed to this report.

Today’s Indicator

36

That’s how many people died in extreme storms in India over the weekend, including 12 who were struck by lightning and 24 who died when their homes collapsed amid torrential rainfall. Climate change has made lightning strikes more common, research has found.