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Back-to-back hurricanes will soon become common

A new study led by Princeton University has found that, due to a combination of rising sea levels and climate change, highly destructive hurricanes and tropical storms could become much more likely to hit coastal regions in quick succession. According to the experts, in areas such as the Gulf Coast, such back-to-back hurricanes could occur as frequently as once every three years.

“Rising sea levels and climate change make sequential damaging hurricanes more likely as the century progresses,” said study lead author Dazhi Xi, a postdoctoral fellow in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton. “Today’s extremely rare events will become far more frequent.”

Questions about the increasing frequency of sequential hurricanes emerged in recent years, particularly after a destructive hurricane season in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, followed very soon by Irma in South Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico. Similarly, in 2021 Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana, followed shortly by Tropical Storm Nicholas that made a landfall as a hurricane in Texas.

By running computer simulations that took into account both a moderate and a high carbon emissions scenario, the scientists found that, in both cases, the chance of sequential, destructive hurricanes will increase dramatically, with areas along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast most likely to experience such devastating effects.

“The proportion of storms that can have an impact on communities is increasing,” said study co-author Ning Lin, an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton. “The frequency of storms is not as important as the increasing number of storms that can become hazardous.”

According to the researchers, this phenomenon is driven by two main factors: rising sea levels and increased precipitation due to climate change. As sea levels rise, storm surges will become more threatening to coastal communities since the baseline water level will already be higher, while, due to higher air temperatures caused by climate change, storms will intensify and carry more water.

These findings highlight the need for community planners and regional emergency officials to recognize this emerging threat and seek urgent improvements in both resilience and response. Communities will need to deal with increased flooding threats by hardening systems that remove floodwater and protecting critical infrastructure such as transportation, water systems, and power grids. At the same time, emergency response teams will have to be prepared to handle multiple storms or hurricanes occurring in quick succession. 

“If a power system requires 15 days to recover from a major hurricane, we cannot wait that long in the future because the next storm can hit before you can restore power, as in the case of Nicholas following Ida. We need to think about plans, rescue workers, resources. How will we plan for this?” Lin concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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