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Did Climate Change Intensify Supertyphoon Haiyan?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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At the UN climate talks in Poland, Yeb Sano, the head of the Philippines delegation has announced he will refrain from eating until participants make “meaningful” progress. In his address, Sano linked the terrible devastation in the Philippines after Supertyphoon Haiyan to climate change.

“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness, the climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.”

The images trickling back from the Philippines in the media are heartbreaking, but do we know whether climate change caused or intensified this immense, record-breaking cyclone? It’s complicated. Climate scientists are very hesitant to blame a single event on global warming. That said, here’s my take: It’s fair to say that climate change likely made this deadly storm deadlier.

The Philippines is already in a precarious situation. It’s a low-lying archipelago sitting atop warm Pacific Ocean waters. Temperature is important to consider here, because warm waters make storms stronger. Haiyan would probably have been monstrously destructive regardless of climate change due to its location and the dense population. We also know that sea level rise has been occurring significantly faster in the Philippine Sea than elsewhere around the world, which worsens flooding and storm surges.

Supertyphoon Haiyan has been devastating and the region faces many additional challenges in its aftermath. International aid groups are working to bring relief to the survivors (here’s how you can help) as delegates continue negotiations at the U.N. summit on climate change. Meanwhile, note that Haiyan has brought something additional to those of us watching half a world away: A glimpse of the future.

For more on the relationship between climate change and storms, take a look at my co-author Chris Mooney’s book, Storm World.

Sheril Kirshenbaum About the Author: Sheril Kirshenbaum is Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin where she works to enhance public understanding of energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Follow on Twitter @Sheril_.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. anumakonda 6:58 pm 11/11/2013

    I visited Philippines couple of times. I could see the islands susceptible to high winds and extreme weather.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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  2. 2. HildaBast 7:23 pm 11/11/2013

    There are data on which kinds of disasters are increasing, and that would support what you’re saying. (Included it here along with the issue of donations: )

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  3. 3. Shoshin 9:05 pm 11/11/2013

    Only the eco-arrogants in search of $$$$ state that any storm is the result of AGW. Why waste a marketing opportunity?

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  4. 4. vapur 11:11 pm 11/11/2013

    Supertyphoon sounds like superhurricane. Sensationalism at its best, then you bring climate change into perspective. Without cause, you say this will be the future. Of course it will, storms happen all the time. I’m not sure what else you intended by that conclusion. Maybe human blaming?

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  5. 5. greg_t_laden 11:13 pm 11/11/2013

    In particular, deepish anomalously warm water may have fueled this storm, as was the case with Katrina. I nominate this as a qualitatively different feature of the “New Normal” to go along with constant rossby waves.

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  6. 6. blueskies121 7:07 am 11/12/2013

    Would this have been a devastating super typhoon without the impact of AGW? I’m sure it would have. But, as the article points out, certain factors have probably contributed to a slightly more potent storm than it should otherwise have been. Warmer surface ocean waters, for starters. And how about the moisture content of air, which has increased by roughly 4% since the 1970′s? Then there’s the rising sea levels, but these would probably only have added a centimeter or so to the storm surge. Of course, fast forward to 2100, and this contribution may be quite a bit more substantial (to the order of 0.8m to 2m). Clearly we have to start waking up to the risks posed by climate change. It’s happening, and it’s real.

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  7. 7. CBDunkerson 8:08 am 11/12/2013

    Asking whether climate change ’caused’ a particular weather event is like asking whether a particular rain drop ’caused’ a flood. No weather event is EVER “caused” by just ONE thing. By assuming that whether CAN be caused by isolated factors the question is inherently erroneous.

    Haiyan was ’caused’ by a low pressure system, warm ocean waters, high sea level, and various other factors… each of which were in turn themselves ’caused’ by multiple factors (e.g. high sea levels were ’caused’ by ice melt, thermal expansion of warming oceans, lunar orbit, et cetera). Climate change impacts hundreds of these ’causes’ and thus could be said to be ‘responsible’ for ALL weather. The weather we have today is inherently determined by the current climate… which is measurably different from the climate of a century ago.

    The media need to get past the question of ‘what one thing caused this weather event’… there is no accurate answer because the question itself is false. Rather they should ask, ‘how have weather patterns changed’? Are there more big storms or fewer?

    Climate is weather in aggregate. Given that the climate has changed (e.g. ~0.8C greater temperature average world-wide) the weather inherently has as well. Understanding how the weather has changed is useful. Questioning what single factor caused any given weather event is worse than meaningless… it actively promotes a false idea.

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  8. 8. Sisko 9:07 am 11/12/2013

    I notice that the Climatewire/Scientific American propaganda machine is out working in full force. Notice the number of their writers who are commenting with links implying that the storm “might” or “could have” been intensified by AGW. The truth is that there is as much reliable evidence that the storm may have been lessened as opposed to being intensified due to AGW. The truth is we don’t know and those implying otherwise are simply trying to be sensational in spreading propaganda and not reliable scientific information.

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  9. 9. erbarker 10:41 am 11/12/2013

    Climate change could have very well intensified the typhoon. The climate has been cooling for the last 14 years. A cooler climate does seem to produce more severe weather.

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  10. 10. JPGumby 10:55 am 11/12/2013

    Wow, two of these on the page the same day. The writers are working hard!

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  11. 11. singing flea 10:59 am 11/12/2013

    One of the integral concepts of scientific investigation is the relationship of cause and effect. It is in fact the root of the scientific method. When one predetermines that AGW is nothing but a money grab by liberals(a prejudice label), then cause and effect is no longer a factor based on science, but rather politics. In the realm of real science this is ludicrous. Of course global climate changes have an effect on on storm size. Some will be bigger as a result of changes and some will be tempered. The role of the climatologists is to observe the changes and attempt to connect the dots to create a better picture of this change, not dismiss it as political trickery.

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  12. 12. sault 3:35 pm 11/12/2013

    LOL…Sisko is just copying / pasting comments onto any climate article anymore. Must get paid by the post…

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  13. 13. lizalou 4:02 pm 11/15/2013

    Bush did it!

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  14. 14. jct405 8:57 am 11/16/2013

    Whether one agrees or disagrees with AGW at its theoretical level, its predictive validity seems unassailable. Increased melting of polar ice caps, sea level rise, measurable and significant increases in the frequency and intensity of storms such as Haiyan. One cannot question the economic consequences. $billions in damages. $billions spent on recovery. Death tolls. These numbers are rising faster than the Kochs’ expenditures on anti-AGW propaganda, which, itself could be argued as a reliable metric underpinning AGW’s validity. In the last 12 months, alone, two global record-setting Oklahoma tornadoes, Sandy, now Haiyan. Arguing AGW climate science seems much like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The climate is undergoing radical change as surely as the Titanic went under. What more obvious cause could there be than AGW? One southern Alabama House candidate argues that all this devastation is Gawd’s wrath upon us for tolerating gay marriage. We can do better.

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