Climate Change, Irma, and the Virgin Islands by Peter Boucher, IGERT Senior Fellow
There are not enough scientists who are willing to say directly that Irma was caused by climate change. And that’s because weather is nearly impossible to predict many years out. Global climate on the other hand, we are absolutely sure is warming as a result of human industry. Continued fossil fuel emissions do translate into warmer oceans and stronger storms. Climate change makes it far more likely that strong hurricanes like Irma appear in the present and in the coming years.
Hurricanes are fueled by long stretches of warm ocean, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing now and in the future Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. But Hurricanes also require low wind shear and a calm atmosphere to form- a weather condition which is difficult to predict under future climate scenarios. What this means is that we don’t know how often storms will get a chance to form in the coming years- but we do know that the hurricanes that form will be much stronger (Knutson et al. 2010).
And while storms like Irma are incredibly powerful (with wind speeds around 185 mph, Irma was shaking and ripping apart even concrete buildings in the Virgin Islands), much of the damage and death that they cause can be prevented. The areas most devastated by these storms are the low-income, minority, and underrepresented communities (sometimes called environmental justice communities) that have been pushed by gentrification into the flood zones. They do not have the proper infrastructure to protect their homes from high winds and flooding, and aid will rarely be able to reach them in the aftermath.
All across the US east coast, buildings and homes have been built to be protected against the storms and floods that occurred the most frequently in the past. They were built at times when people thought the climate would hold steady- and instead, the entire global system is changing at the fastest pace ever recorded in human history. Our coastal communities were built with outdated risk maps that do not show the full extent of current flood zones and that do not account for the current frequency at which strong storms like Irma will hit. Our cities and towns are not built to last the present day storms, and as is, we can’t expect them to last the future.
I am professionally as well as personally invested in storms and coastal communities. I live in a coastal community- Boston. I study climate change as an environmental science PhD student at University of Massachusetts Boston. I talk about hurricanes, storms, and floods in class, particularly in relation to hurricane sandy, which tore the roof off of our university library in 2012 (they’re still doing construction on it).
My brother-in-law’s family is from the US Virgin Islands. They were lucky to be in a well-protected home on a hill in St. Thomas. Even so, they’ve lost half their home to Irma. Their house has lasted through many decades of hurricanes- Irma might be the worst they’ve seen. They have many friends and family members on surrounding Caribbean islands whose homes were less protected, and they were completely leveled.
My brother in law is heading home to St. Thomas with a backpack full of food and supplies because he is worried that there will be none on the hill where his family lives. When I asked if there was anything I could send- he didn’t ask for extra clothing or food, like I expected- he asked for a gas powered chainsaw. They need it to cut through the wood and debris that a few days ago made up the frames of people’s homes.
The worst part of all this is that this kind of damage can and will all happen again if we don’t take it seriously. Climate change will bring more Irmas- stronger storms more often. I stress this because I want there to be only one time in my brother-in-law’s life when he needs to go home to chainsaw apart the dilapidated houses of his friends and family.
Now you can know for sure: while a storm’s appearance may be unpredictable in weeks or months ahead, in the long run, strong storms- category 4 and above- will appear more often, and we need to make sure our government, our local lawmakers, and our communities are prepared to face that fact.
Want to know what’s happening in the Virgin Islands post-Irma? Check out The Virgin Islands Consortium
To donate to relief efforts in the Virgin Islands: The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands
 “…greenhouse warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift towards stronger storms, with intensity increases of 2–11% by 2100.”
Knutson, T., McBride, J., Chan, J., Emanuel, K., Holland, G., Landsea, C., . . . Sugi, M. (2010). Tropical cyclones and climate change. Nature Geoscience., 3(3), 157-163.