Hurricane Irma – Expert Reaction

With three hurricanes currently tracking through the Atlantic, experts are watching Hurricane Irma, which is being called one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record.

The hurricane has reached the Caribbean islands and may track toward Florida by the weekend.


The UK SMC gathered expert commentary on Hurricane Irma. Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Prof Kevin Horsburgh, National Oceanography Centre, said:

“Hurricane Irma is the strongest storm in over 10 years and formed further east than usual. This hurricane will bring life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards to portions of the northern Leeward Islands today. Coastal flooding and wave impacts caused by hurricanes, such as Irma, have major social and economic impacts for coastal communities.  This underlies the value of constantly improving coastal flood forecasting across the world, which is one of the aims of next week’s 1st international workshop on waves, storm surges and coastal hazards.

“Whereas specific hurricanes are not caused by climate change, they may be worsened by higher surface heat content in the tropics, which provides the driving force for hurricanes. Another aspect of this year’s hurricane season to note is that it started earlier than usual, with Hurricane Arlene in April as opposed to early June.”

Dr Jeffrey Kargel, Department of Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona, said:

“Scientists knew that Earth’s climate is connected to the composition of the atmosphere since shortly after the U.S. Civil War. It’s now a very mature science. There is zero legitimate scientific controversy about how fossil fuel combustion increases greenhouse carbon pollution in the atmosphere, and that causes climate change.  By undertaking this century-long industrial experiment on our planet, we have learned that the most impactful extreme weather is connected to global warming. For decades scientists have warned about our planet’s climate change, the disappearance of Arctic sea ice, melting glaciers, desertification, rising sea level,  and increasingly stubborn, immovable jet streams that bring record setting heat waves, droughts, and mega snowstorms.   The connection to hurricane intensity and numbers has been controversial, but the history of hurricanes now supports direct links between carbon pollution, climate, and the frequency and intensities of the worst hurricanes.  We had a hint of this before this year’s hurricanes, and it makes complete sense given how the birth and growth of hurricanes occurs over warm sea water.  And so now we have, in the space of two weeks, two record-setting hurricanes.

“I have one thing to ask the American government and all other climate change denying politicians around the world: have you wondered at all about climate change, hurricanes, glacier melting, ocean warming and sea level rise in connection with the safety of places near and dear to you, such as the Mar-a-Lago Resort? It is time that you start worrying about that. And while you are at it, please have some concern about the rest of the U.S. and the world.

“Put most simply, Planet Earth’s climate is in upheaval and we know exactly what is causing it: right now, the rapid pace of climate change is set by government policies in the U.S. and many other countries. We cannot turn it around in a few years or even in a decade.  But we can worsen it in a few years or a decade.”

Dr Chris Holloway, tropical storm expert at the University of Reading, said:

“Hurricane Irma is a potentially life-threatening storm for the Caribbean islands and neighbouring Leeward Islands due to winds up to 185 mph and storm surge up to 11 feet with large swells on top of this. The storm is likely to maintain very strong intensity (category 4 or 5) over the next three days, probably staying just north of the Greater Antilles but still a potential threat to Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. After that, the forecast track becomes more uncertain, with the storm likely affecting the Bahamas and Florida over the weekend.

“Since the storm will begin to turn more towards the north in about five days, but the exact timing of this turn is uncertain, all of the Florida peninsula, the Bahamas, Cuba, and the Carolinas and Georgia should be prepared for a possible landfall or other effects of a severe hurricane.  The main dangers with this storm are storm surge and damaging winds.

“For climate change, it’s important to note that climate change has already caused higher sea levels, so any storm surge is happening on top of a higher initial level, leading to more coastal flooding.  Also, climate change leads to increased rainfall for a storm of a given strength, leading to increased freshwater flooding.  Climate change also likely increases the probability of storms reaching an extremely high intensity.

“Irma is moving faster than Harvey, and has even stronger maximum winds that will affect a potentially larger region, so storm surge and wind damage are the primary risks.  Harvey moved very slowly and dumped rainfall over Texas for days, mostly as a much weaker tropical storm, so freshwater flooding caused most of the damage from Harvey.” 

Dr Dann Mitchell, NERC Research Fellow at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, said:

“Hurricane Irma, following so closely after Tropical Storm Harvey and other extreme weather emergencies, has prompted questions about the role of climate change.  The question of whether climate change ’caused’ any particular weather event is the wrong one; instead, we must probe how climate change alters extreme weather.  Aside from the warming atmosphere, rising sea level and surface ocean warming have likely contributed to the impact of both Irma and Harvey. The details of these contributions will be examined by scientists in the coming months and years.

“These events also offer wider lessons on how prepared we are for a warmer future.  It is likely that rainfall events, in general, will become more extreme, as will heat waves and droughts. So events like Irma and Harvey also help us understand if we are prepared for them and who will be most affected. Increasingly, the evidence is clear that the poorest, being the most exposed to many climate risks and often being the least protected, will be most affected.  Addressing this inequality is at the heart of not just the climate change discussion but all discussions about how we become resilient to risk and hazards.”

Julian Heming, hurricane expert at the Met Office, said:

“Irma is one of the strongest hurricanes to have been recorded in the Atlantic. Already bringing extreme impacts to the northern end of the Lesser Antilles chain of islands, the system will move west-north-west affecting other island states. A hurricane of this magnitude will have impacts extending far from its centre, so it’s important for residents not to focus on the exact forecast track but to consider the system as a whole, as intense rainfall, flash floods, extreme winds and a life-threatening storm surge will severely affect communities over a wide area.

“Higher than average sea-surface temperatures are fuelling Hurricane Irma, giving additional energy and moisture.”

Declared interests

None declared