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Are hurricanes getting worse? Al Roker explains how climate change is affecting storms

Warmer ocean waters are providing more fuel to create stronger hurricanes, Roker says.
/ Source: TODAY

As Hurricane Idalia barreled towards the Florida coast, the storm seemed to rapidly intensify.

While its winds rose to 55 mph, making it a Category 4 storm by early Wednesday, it weakened just slightly and made landfall as a Category 3 storm.

The hurricane's intensification, NBC News reports, is likely tied to warming ocean temperatures as a result of global warming. In recent months, the world's oceans have seen severe marine heat waves — including the North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Basin — providing more fuel to create stronger storms. speaks with our own Al Roker about how exactly climate change is impacting these storms and what we can expect in the future.

When is hurricane season?

Hurricane season in the Atlantic is June 1 to Nov. 30.

What is climate change?

Climate change refers to the long-term shift to warmer temperatures around the world, which has been impacted by human activities like the burning of fossil fuels that produce heat-trapping gases, also known as greenhouse gasses, in the atmosphere.

The trapped gasses "act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping the sun's heat and raising temperatures," according to the United Nations.

How does climate change impact hurricanes?

"Climate change has made for warmer ocean waters, which is basically the fuel for hurricanes, and abnormally warm waters have been responsible for rapidly intensifying hurricanes," Roker says.

He explained that meteorologists only expected Hurricane Idalia to ever evolve into a Category 3 storm. And while that was its classification when it actually hit Florida, it had rapidly intensified to be a Category 4 right before making landfall.

"And because a warmer atmosphere and warmer oceans can hold more water, the storms — even once they move over land and start to lose their tropical characteristics — over produce rainfall as just regular storm systems."

Mark Wool, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Florida, agrees. Wool tells that climate change doesn't mean more hurricanes, just stronger ones.

"One misconception is that climate change is going to result in more hurricanes and that the science really doesn't support that," he says. "So while the overall number of tropical cyclones worldwide is not expected to go up, the number of strong — Category 3, 4 and 5 storms, especially the 4s and 5s — we'll see more of those than we have in the past."

Wool adds that we've already started to see such a trend.

"If you look back, you could argue that since 2017, we've had quite a few," he says, citing Hurricane Florence, which was a Category 4 storm that made landfall in the Carolinas on Sept. 14 2018 and Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10, 2018.

"And of course, the 2020 season was a record season. We had (Hurricane) Ian last year, and now, of course, Idalia," he says.

The 2020 hurricane season had a record-breaking 30 named storms with 11 making landfall in the continental United States. A developing cyclone only gets a name when it officially becomes a tropical storm, meaning it has sustained winds of at least 39 mph.

What does the category of the storm mean?

The category of a storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is a 1 to 5 rating based only on a hurricane’s maximum sustained wind speed. Once a storm is considered Category 3, it's considered a "major" storm.

Category One: 74-95 mph winds

This type of storm produces very dangerous winds that will result in some damage.

Category Two: 96-110 mph winds

This category means extremely dangerous winds that can cause extensive damage.

Category Three: 111-129 mph

Category three means devastating damage can occur.

Category Four: 130-156 mph

This means catastrophic damage can occur.

Category Five: 157 mph or higher

Category five means even more catastrophic damage should be expected.

Roker says the exact category isn't really the most important thing to worry about when a storm is heading your way.

"We try to tell people, especially in this age of climate change, don't pay attention to the category," he says.

"Just watch and listen to the advisories and warnings because things change. A tropical storm these days can dump unbelievable amounts of rain. So I would pay attention to the warnings, the watches. Don't worry about designations."

What's next this hurricane season?

Wool notes that it's only August.

"We've got plenty of season ahead of us, including the typically busiest month of the season: September," he says. "So we don't want people to let their guard down. Just because we had a hurricane in the area here doesn't mean we're done. So we need people to restock those kits. And stay prepared for the rest of hurricane season."