Amanda Chunco

Climate change has led to more intense and more frequent storms, including hurricanes, according to Amanda Chunco, professor of environmental studies. Between changing temperatures leading to higher winds, and higher sea levels leading to more flooding, hurricanes have caused more devastation in recent years.

Chunco, who has done research on climate change, explained how hurricanes have progressed over time and why people are not equipped to handle this level of extremity.

This interview was edited for clarity.

How has climate change played a role in natural disasters? 

“It’s always very hard to attribute any particular storm to any particular cause. There’s still a lot we don’t know about storms, but we do see as it has gotten warmer, the number and intensity of storms has increased for sure. There’s some good climatological modeling that shows as the ocean gets warmer, we should be expecting to have more intense storms, even more frequently. … We’ve started to see that, between Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Florence and now Ian, there have been a lot of really severe storms over the last couple of years.”

Did climate change play a role in the effect that Hurricane Ian had?

“It was a Category 4 hurricane to hit Florida. Again, we’ve had hurricanes throughout history. There have always been hurricanes — some severe hurricanes — but just the intensity of this particular hurricane is certainly due in large part to climate change.”

How do rising temperatures affect storm intensity?

“Wind is just the movement of air from one location to another, and a lot of that is driven by temperature. A lot of it is driven by temperature differentials where it’s hotter and it’s cold. And so we see these pockets now, it’s getting much hotter, which leads to faster wind speeds. It’s a very complicated relationship. Wind speed is driven a lot by temperature, so as it gets hotter, we’re going to get faster ones.”

How can we prepare for more intense storms in the future?

“We tend to be really reactive. So after Hurricane Andrew — which was back in the ’90s — destroyed Miami, building codes changed. So we need to build roofs that are going to withstand higher winds. I think we need to start being more proactive because these storms are becoming more intense and more common. Thinking about zoning, where do we let people live? How do we build structures that are going to survive? 

It’s complicated because in my opinion, a lot of people live in really dangerous areas right now. So do we make those areas more safe, or do we encourage people to move to safer areas?

Miami is now flooding after just a little bit of rain because of sea level rise. The city of Venice in Italy floods with a lot of high tides now, so Venice is trying to build sea walls, Miami is trying to raise roads. If we want to continue to live in these areas, we are going to have to put billions of dollars into infrastructure changes. We just can look around campus and the fact that the hurricane was not that bad here and we still lost power tells you something about the resiliency of our power system.”

Elon is not particularly coastal, but we are still seeing these storms. Should we be more prepared for hurricane weather in the future? 

“Certainly we’re never going to see what Wilmington is going to see, we are pretty far from the coast and hurricanes slow down as they go over land. Ian in particular had a long path through Georgia and South Carolina before it finally sat down. 

We should all be doing a better job of being ready for power outages. How do we make our power system more wind resistant? We don’t have much of an issue with flooding here because areas that are close to rivers can see some flooding when the water gets really high really fast. I know Hillsborough got some roads that were getting close to being flooded over just because so much water got dumped in such a short amount of time.” 

During Hurricane Florence a couple years ago, Elon had more issues with trees that fell down. Do you think that was something Elon learned from and made changes in response to?

“I don’t necessarily think we’ve made many changes. I do think newer buildings are going to have better standards. Thinking about where trees go on campus and about what kind of trees we plant, we did lose some oaks I think in the last big storm. We have a really good team of arborists, but keeping trees pruned in a certain way makes them less resilient or more resilient to getting knocked down here. 

You need to think really carefully about how to be more resilient for the future. Future weather conditions are not going to look like the past.”