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Data: EPA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Hurricane Ida jumped from a 105-mph Category 2 hurricane on Saturday to a high-end Category 4 monster by Sunday morning, in a feat enabled by climate change, seasonal timing and a dose of bad luck.

Why it matters: Understanding how Mother Nature's most powerful storms are changing is key to learning how to better protect coastal communities around the world — everywhere from the mega-cities of Southeast Asia to the small towns of the Louisiana Bayou.

Driving the news: The explosive intensification of Hurricane Ida shortly before landfall was a nightmare situation. Social media was inundated with expressions of anxiety and dread, as it was too late for anyone in harm's way to flee from what they may have thought was going to be a weaker storm.

  • That the storm rapidly intensified was not a surprise to hurricane forecasters, who had been predicting this since the storm moved off the coast of Cuba on Friday.
  • But even the most bullish forecast did not call for the rate or peak of intensification that ended up occurring.

By the numbers: One key measure of storm intensity is the minimum central air pressure. In this case, the pressure dropped by a whopping 41 millibars in just 14 hours, between 5pm ET Saturday and 7am ET Sunday — and 52 millibars in 24 hours, starting from 8am ET Saturday.

  • During the 24-hour period, winds shot upwards by 65 mph, exceeding the National Hurricane Center's definition of rapid intensification, which is when a storm's maximum sustained winds increase by 35 mph in 24 hours.
  • In keeping with another suspicious trend, Ida also intensified all the way to the coast in the northern Gulf of Mexico, something that was virtually unheard of before 2018, yet has seemingly become routine.

The intrigue ... Hurricane Ida's explosive intensification was due to three main factors, with climate change mainly affecting the first two — and most decisive — of these three:

  1. An ample supply of bathtub-like warm water, with the warmth extending deep into the water column. This was heightened by the storm's timing: Gulf temperatures tend to be at their hottest at this time of year. This year, though, the waters have been even hotter than average.
  2. Abundant moisture in the atmosphere, since dry air can get entrained into storms and disrupt their intensification process.
  3. A lack of wind shear or any other atmospheric factor that could stifle the storm's towering thunderstorms from organizing and forming a concentric ring around the eye.
Data: NOAA Best Track Database; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

How it works: Hurricanes are heat engines, feasting off warm, tropical waters.

  • The vast majority of extra heat going into the climate system from burning fossil fuels is being absorbed by the oceans, and the seas are warming as a result.
  • So, too, are air temperatures. Physics, specifically the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship, tells us that for every 1°C (1.8°F) of temperature increase, there is about a 7% increase in the water holding capacity of the atmosphere.
  • A recent scientific assessment found that the planet's oceans have warmed faster during the past 100 years than at any point in the past 11,000 years.
  • These two trends are causing hurricanes and tropical storms to dump more water, on average, than they used to, and for there to be a greater proportion of high-end Category 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes in some ocean basins.

Context: Sufficient studies have been published on these trends in peer-reviewed journals that the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report included some changes to the role of climate change in tropical cyclones as an area of increased scientific confidence.

  • For example, a 2019 study in the journal Nature found there had been a trend in the Atlantic Ocean toward more rapidly intensifying storms between 1982 and 2009, and computer modeling showed that such a trend would not have been likely without human-induced climate change.
  • A 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that tropical cyclones are more likely to reach higher categories across much of the globe, including the Atlantic.
  • And an especially ominous 2017 study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that a storm that intensifies by 70 mph in the 24 hours before landfall, which occurs about once every century today, could occur as frequently as every five to 10 years by the end of this century.

The bottom line: In the end, the fact that this storm hit Port Fourchon, Louisiana, also comes with a dose of bad luck and bitter irony.

  • Bad luck, since the direct hit makes the state the first to ever see back-to-back years with hurricanes that made landfall with sustained winds of 150 mph or greater, according to meteorologist Steve Bowen, head of catastrophe insight at Aon.
  • And irony, because the landfall location, Port Fourchon, is home to critical facilities for operating deepwater oil and gas drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. More than 1.5 million barrels of crude oil per day are transported via pipelines and through the port. Yet it's the burning of fossil fuels that helped make this storm so strong, and so badly damaged the port.

Go deeper ... In photos: Hurricane Ida pummels Louisiana

Go deeper

Axios roundtable on the future of climate change and lung health

On Wednesday, September 15, Axios’ health care reporter Caitlin Owens and climate and energy reporter Andrew Freedman hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with policy leaders, healthcare professionals, and environmental experts on the impact of climate change on people living with respiratory illnesses. 

Andrew Lindsley, Medical Director and Asset Lead at Amgen, started off the conversation by addressing the gravity of climate change as it relates to lung health and respiratory diseases.

  • “Climate change can directly cause or aggravate pre-existing respiratory diseases, and they can drive an increased exposure to risk factors associated with respiratory diseases, including asthma.”

National Assistant Vice President of Healthy Air at the American Lung Association, Laura Kate Bender, explained how recent research confirmed that devastating wildfires have negatively impacted air quality levels. 

  • “What we found is that we are continuing to see the impact of climate change on the quality of the air nationwide. Where that really showed up in this year’s report was with particle pollution. We saw more people were exposed to harmful short-term levels of particle pollution that we can tie back to the wildfires.”   

Executive Director of Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, referenced a study he conducted in several U.S. cities to highlight the connection between small vehicle transit usage and decreases in levels of NO2, a harmful lung irritant.  

  • “It shows a roadmap that with different transportation systems of different models or even electrifying vehicles, it can have a significant local improvement in air quality and also deal with climate change at the same time.” 

Abby Young, Manager of Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Climate Protection Program, described how climate change especially exacerbates health issues among vulnerable populations.

  • “When a community is already suffering from a high degree of air pollution and respiratory ailments, and then you layer on all these impacts that we’re talking about from climate change, you make a bad situation even worse.”

Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School for Public Health, Aaron Bernstein, emphasized the importance of broader social change in ensuring equitable access to healthcare. 

  • “My biggest hope in this year is that we realize that we can no longer work on issues related to climate or pandemics by trying to build more technological limbs on a tree of life. Through our technologies, our ventilation systems, our vaccines, our drugs. We obviously need those, they’re critical and we have to get people vaccinated, but as we’ve already shown, those things benefit the people who are least at risk first.”   

Research scientist at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University, Dr. Juan Aguilera, noted the importance of understanding the intricate make-up of particles that enter our lungs as air quality levels continue to fluctuate.

  • “We’re currently researching on what are the effects on the immune system, because as we breathe in these pollutants, it’s also important to notice what’s in the pollutants. We can no longer just focus on the size of the particle, we must know what’s in the particle and what are the effects on the respiratory system, the circulatory system, and the immune system. We’re getting to that point.” 

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, articulated the significance of focusing on vulnerable communities in mitigating the effects of climate change on a policy level. 

  • “We ought to recognize that the fact that we have these vulnerable communities and where they are, it’s not a secret. These are the same communities that have food insecurity, housing insecurity, income insecurity. While they may have been exposed to some degree because of wildfires that are broader in nature, in terms of polluting the air and floods that are now capturing the communities in which they live, we just have to remember that these communities, while everyone will experience them pretty much the same, these other communities are much less resilient, and they don’t recover.” 

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) acknowledged the crucial role that policymakers play in shaping the future of environmental policy, noting the opportunity and responsibility that lawmakers have to act quickly on the matter. 

  • “I, for one, will be working to ensure passage of the Build Back Better Act, it has this huge footprint that will implement provisions throughout the country and the state to be able to assure that the warming climate will be addressed.” 

Thank you Amgen for sponsoring this event. 

Ben Geman, author of Generate
20 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Climate change could hit people of color especially hard

Data: EPA; Note: Relative effects at 2°C warming above 1986-2005 average and 50 centimeters of sea level rise;  Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

A growing environmental threat to communities of color — particularly Black Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans — is the damage some are likely to suffer because of climate change in the coming years.

The big picture: This visual is based on an EPA analysis released this month that explores how warming and rising seas could make life especially miserable for people of color based on where they currently live in the lower 48 states.

Mike Allen, author of AM
9 mins ago - Technology

Axios interview: Facebook to try for more transparency

Nick Clegg last year. Photo: Matthew Sobocinski/USA Today via Reuters

Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs, tells me the company will try to provide more data to outside researchers to scrutinize the health of activity on Facebook and Instagram, following The Wall Street Journal's brutal look at internal documents.

Driving the news: Clegg didn't say that in his public response to the series. So I called him to push for what Facebook will actually do differently given the new dangers raised by The Journal.