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What gives, Joaquin?

green muse

Hurricane Joaquin is behind us, but its aftermath can still be felt. Here in Durham, we were merely deluged with cold rain, but in the central Bahamas, a massive storm surge flooded streets and enveloped houses. Three islands experienced a total blackout, and about 85 percent of the homes in one settlement on Crooked Island were reportedly destroyed. Joaquin was the strongest Atlantic hurricane since Igor in 2010 and was just 2 mph shy of developing into a Category 5 storm. Surprising stuff, especially since this year’s strong El Niño means we expect stronger Pacific storms and weaker Atlantic ones. So what gives?

Apparently Joaquin hit an unusually warm pool of water in the ocean and stayed there long enough to gain intensity. Evaporation of warm water fuels a hurricane and hotter sea surface temperatures mean more evaporation and thus more energy for the storm. There was also a drop in wind shear—upper atmospheric winds that bring drier air into the center of the hurricane and damper its progress. This combo gave Joaquin some serious power.

Wind power isn’t the biggest danger with hurricanes though; it’s the storm surge that’ll get you. This bulge of water that builds up in front of a storm is the number one killer in hurricanes and was responsible for deaths during hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. This is particularly troublesome because, even as climate change creates warmer ocean temperatures that lend power to storms, it also contributes to sea level rise—a factor that greatly increases the danger from storm surge.

According to a 2013 study, global warming has already doubled the risk of Hurricane Katrina-magnitude storm surges in the U.S. Researchers estimate that for every 1.8°F increase in global average surface temperature, there could be a two-fold to seven-fold increase in the risk of Katrina-magnitude surge events. The latest climate projections predict that the globe will warm between 3.2°F and 7.2°F by 2100, depending on future greenhouse gas emissions and the precise sensitivity of the climate systems to such pollutants.

So it seems like now, if ever, is the best time to start reducing emissions. Luckily this process has already started—the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, finalized this past summer, focuses on cutting carbon pollution from power plants. Going further, at this year’s international climate summit in Paris, the U.S. will pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels over the next decade. Leading up to the Paris talks, every country taking part is required to submit emissions targets and climate adaptation goals. 200 countries will participate in the talks, which are essential for unifying the globe towards emissions reduction.

On a smaller scale, Duke University is contributing with its 2009 Climate Action Plan, which will guide the university to achieve climate neutrality by 2024. The CAP suggests reduction measures such as eliminating coal use on campus, energy conservation measures, installing solar panels, providing direct financial incentives for alternative transportation and improving regional transportation. As of 2014, Duke has achieved a 21 percent reduction in emissions based on a 2007 baseline. This reduction is partially due to the elimination of coal use on campus in 2011. Furthermore, the university made efficiency upgrades to the steam system that has reduced emissions from campus steam plants by 36 percent since 2007. Other measures also contributed, such as the launch of the Bull City Connector bus and the replacement of 10 campus buses with two hybrid-articulated buses and six ultra-low-sulfur diesel buses. In addition to these tactics, the university is also expanding its sustainability education program—more than 400 courses with sustainability-related content were offered to students in academic year 2013-2014.

Education is probably one of the most essential aspects of reducing greenhouse gas emission and diminishing the intensity of future climate change. As Duke students, we’re part of the next generation of policy makers, scientists and average citizens who will play a large part in our climate future. We’re at the cusp of a dangerous temperature increase, and the decisions we make today will greatly impact the safety and health of our planet tomorrow.

Caeleigh MacNeil is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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