Science, Tech & Environment

Super Typhoon Haiyan can be blamed on climate change, right? Maybe not


Residents pick up pieces of wood in between two cargo ships washed ashore four days after super typhoon Haiyan hit Anibong town, Tacloban city, central Philippines November 11, 2013.


REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

There's plenty of speculation these days whenever a giant storm hits: Did climate change play a part?

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The usual answer is as basic to scientists, as it is infuriating to people trying to lobby for changes to combat climate change. It goes like this: you can't make any determination about climate change based on a single storm. 

“We don't get to pick and choose which storms are enhanced by a warmer climate and which ones aren't," Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami, told Climate Central. "So this was just as subject to this year's climate as the numerous others that weren't so impressive.

"Extremely intense tropical cyclones are rare, but have always been a part of nature — we don't need to find an excuse for them," said McNoldy.

But while climate change cannot be blamed for the storm, it can be blamed for at least part of its devastation. Kerry Emanuel, who teaches atmospheric science at MIT, says, over the years, climate change has made sea levels rise. Those higher sea levels create higher storm surges. Those higher storm surges push water farther inland. 

That's what the US experienced when Superstorm Sandy roared into New York City. And that's what happened with Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.