Hurricane Sally, mutant sloth

Storms like Sally are not natural. They are fundamentally changed and strengthened by man.

Imagine getting sucker-punched by a sloth with Wolverine blades for claws. You’re walking under a tree, and bam—a furry baby drops down and pierces your cheek with a foot made of swords. This is bad for several reasons, but the worst appears to be that this is a sloth. He cannot simply rip his claws from your face like a band-aid. He must pull them out the same way he does everything else: slowly.

This is what I think about when I look at Hurricane Sally. The life-threatening storm bearing down on Alabama and Florida this morning underwent a phenomenon known as “rapid intensification” less than 48 hours before it made landfall. This is essentially the extreme weather version of a sucker punch—or an animal falling out of a tree onto your face. To make things worse, the aggressive storm is now moving at an agonizingly slow pace over land; taking its sweet time pulling its Adamantium claw out of the Gulf Coast’s cheek.

I know it’s not a pleasant thing to imagine. But the consequences of climate change rarely are. And the fact is, both rapid intensification and slow-moving storms are becoming more likely as climate change worsens. The mutant sloths, in other words, are not going away. If we don’t do anything to stop them, they’ll likely get worse.

A gif showing Hurricane Sally’s rapid intensification on Monday. Source: NOAA

The connection between Sally and climate change

On Monday morning, Hurricane Sally was merely a tropical storm with winds of only 65 mph. But over the course about 90 minutes, Sally underwent a phenomenon known as “rapid intensification,” strengthening to a Category 1 hurricane with 90 mph winds.

This phenomenon “is especially dangerous when in happens in the 24 to 48 hours before a storm reaches land,” CNN notes. “That’s because you can go to bed at night anticipating a Category 1, then wake up to a Category 3 major hurricane that brings impacts far worse than earlier anticipated.” Sally made landfall early Wednesday morning as a Category 2 storm with 105 mph winds, about 40 hours after she rapidly intensified.

But despite Sally’s high wind speeds, it’s clear her true nature is slowness. The actual storm is moving across land at “an agonizingly slow 3 mph,” the Associated Press reports. That is "the speed of a child in a candy shop," John De Block of the National Weather Service told CBS News, and means a catastrophic amount of rainfall is falling across the affected areas. More than 2 feet of rain has already been recorded near Pensacola, more is on the way. “Sally’s moving so slowly, so it just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding the area with tropical rain and just powerful winds,” said National Weather Service forecaster David Eversole. “It’s just a nightmare.”

Scientists have connected both of Sally’s nightmare traits—that is, rapid intensification and sluggish storm movement—to human-caused climate change. Each have each been on the rise as the planet has warmed. And some of the most infamously catastrophic, life-altering, economically damaging hurricanes of the last few years have been marked by these traits. As I wrote about for The New Republic in 2018:

Hurricane Michael was the last to catch meteorologists off guard. It was only a Category 1 storm on October 8, less than two days before it made landfall as nearly a Category 5, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in the United States. Hurricane Florence jumped from a Category 2 to Category 4 storm in a period of a few hours before it slammed into North Carolina in September. The trend isn’t limited to this year, either. The most destructive and infamous storms of 2017—Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria—all underwent rapid intensification, according to The Washington Post.

Some of these same notorious storms—namely, Harvey and Florence—were also devastatingly slow-moving once they reached land. This resulted in their massive respective rainfall totals and catastrophically damaging flooding. And researchers say this phenomenon, too, is on the rise. As Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote for The New York Times in 2018, “Between 1949 and 2016, tropical cyclone translation speeds declined 10 percent worldwide … The storms, in effect, are sticking around places for a longer period of time.”

Combine all that with the robust, comprehensive evidence showing climate change makes rainfall events more intense when they occur, and it’s clear that storms like Sally are not mere acts of God. They are mutants—made perhaps by God, but fundamentally changed and strengthened by interference by man.

If men changed the storms, why not change the storm’s names?

Sally is not the only big storm in the news right now. In fact, there are five tropical cyclones brewing in the Atlantic: Sally, Paulette, Rene, Teddy, and Vicky.

Teddy and Vicky are the season’s 19th and 20th named storms—and according to the New York Times, there’s only one name left before meteorologists straight-up run out of names they can use on the alphabetical list.

“The Atlantic hurricane season this year has stirred up storms at such a rapid rate that there is now only one entry—Wilfred—left on the 21-name list that meteorologists use for each season,” the article reads. “Forecasters say they are likely to exhaust the current list, given that this is the height of the season, which began on June 1 and ends on Nov. 30.”

The solution right now is that forecasters will start using the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet to name future storms. This has only ever happened one time before, in 2005. But some climate activists have an alternative idea.

Doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me—though I would humbly suggest naming Atlantic hurricanes after America’s top 100 biggest greenhouse-gas polluting companies and entities, which aren’t necessarily all fossil fuel companies (though many of them are).

We could even add little cute names so we didn’t violate trademarks. See the dumb meme I made below; you’ll see what I mean.

Feel free to comment with your hurricane naming suggestions, or send them to me at emily@heated.world.

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