Hurricane Matthew was reportedly the strongest hurricane to hit Haiti since 1964, and the National Hurricane Center is now warning that there is “a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along the Florida east coast and Georgia coast.” Alerting the public to the threat and urging people to take all precautions necessary to stay safe are the top priorities for reporters covering this historic storm. But media outlets should also keep the broader climate change context in mind as they report on Hurricane Matthew in the coming days.
When record-breaking rainfall and flooding struck Louisiana in August, major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post addressed how the devastation was in line with the predicted impacts of a warming planet, but the major TV networks’ nightly newscasts did not. As CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter noted at the time, it’s essential for media to explain that extreme weather events “are happening more often due to climate change and are more extreme due to climate change,” particularly in the “early stages” of covering a weather disaster.
Time will tell if the major television networks cover the relationship between climate change and Hurricane Matthew, but the scientific evidence is clear.
As Climate Nexus’ Climate Signals has explained, Matthew has been “fueled by seas warmer than the historical average” and the threat of catastrophic flooding from heavy rainfall is “significantly amplified by climate change”:
As the global temperature has increased, so too has the capacity of the atmosphere to hold and dump more water. At the same time warming of the ocean increases evaporation making more moisture available to the atmosphere. In parallel, coastal flooding has been amplified by sea level rise which extends the reach of storm surge driven by hurricanes such as Matthew.
Similarly, The Guardian reported on October 5 that scientists say major storms like Matthew “will grow in menace as the world warms and sea levels rise.” The article quoted Massachusetts Institute of Technology climate scientist Kerry Emanuel, who said, “We expect to see more high-intensity events, category 4 and 5 events” due to global warming, and “there are hints that we are already beginning to see it in nature.” The Guardian also cited James Done of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who said, “The message is that hurricanes that do occur in the future, the major ones, will be stronger. Category four and five hurricanes could double or triple in the coming decades.”
Emanuel added that scientists expect the damage from hurricanes like Matthew to “steadily increase” as sea levels continue to rise over the rest of the century.