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Climate change

Hurricane Florence is about to hit the East Coast—could technology one day protect us?

September 12, 2018

The massive Atlantic storm could produce “life-threatening storm surges” and “catastrophic flash flooding,” the National Hurricane Center has warned

If Hurricane Florence breaches the coast of the Carolinas and maintains its intensity, it could become the first Category Four storm to make landfall that far north. More than 1.5 million residents have been ordered to evacuate already.

On the heels of the most expensive hurricane season ever, the approaching storm raises questions: What role is climate change playing—and could technology offset these growing dangers?

Is climate change to blame? It’s tricky to definitively attribute any single weather event to climate change, but scientists have long warned that shifting climatic conditions are making hurricanes and extreme weather events worse, as MIT Technology Review has previously explained.

If the world doesn’t cut carbon emissions, the risks of storms on the scale of Hurricane Harvey, which killed dozens and displaced thousands of people last year, will increase “by factors of 10 by the late 20th century and early 21st,” said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, drawing from his study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Can we stop them from getting any worse? Slashing greenhouse-gas emissions as quickly as possible could help stop the dangers from increasing further—but that is likely to take decades. That means much of the work to mitigate the damages will need to go into adaptation efforts, like improved hurricane forecasting, shoreline reinforcements, and disaster response.

Scientists have explored some potential technological means of weakening or preventing hurricanes, including floating wave-powered pumps that stir up and thus cool down ocean waters, and geoengineering techniques to brighten marine clouds to reflect away more heat. But research in these areas is at an early stage and not particularly well funded, and secondary environmental effects aren’t well understood.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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