What Recent Destructive Cyclones Tell Us About Climate

A cyclone hit Southern Africa and a “bomb cyclone” hit Nebraska causing massive flooding. NPR’s Michel Martin talks to climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe about the climate implications of these events


We just heard from people who are dealing with the damage from cyclones in Nebraska and Mozambique. Now, those locations bore the brunt of the damage, but in both cases, surrounding areas have also experienced devastating flooding because of heavy rain. We wanted to get a better understanding of what these powerful storms might tell us about the climate, so once again, we’ve called on Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University to explain what’s going on.

Could we just start with the terms that many people are hearing in the news? What’s the difference between a hurricane, a cyclone and what’s being called a bomb cyclone?

HAYHOE: Well, tropical storms that are fed by warm ocean water are called different names in different parts of the world. So what we call a hurricane here in North America they would call a typhoon over in Japan, and they would call it a cyclone down in the South Pacific. But they’re all the same type of storm that get their energy from warm ocean water. And we know that over 90 percent of the extra heat being trapped inside the climate system by all the heat-trapping gases we’re producing is going into the ocean, where it is powering stronger storms.

Now, as an atmospheric scientist, any storm that has a low-pressure system at its center is a cyclone technically. And so the bomb cyclone that we saw over the Midwest was not a tropical storm fed by warm ocean water. It was a storm that rotates in a counterclockwise way. That’s why we call it a cyclone. But it was called a bomb because it intensified so fast. The center pressure dropped incredibly, and that increased the power of the storm significantly.

MARTIN: Now, we know that there is a season for hurricanes and cyclones. But the two that we’re talking about now that have caused so much destruction, you know, both in Nebraska and especially in southern Africa. Is there something unique about those two storm systems?

HAYHOE: These two storms exemplify exactly why we care about a changing climate. So often, we think it’s a matter of the polar bears or maybe future generations who will be affected. But the reality is, we are being affected right here in the places we live today. And the No. 1 way that we’re being affected is by climate change exacerbating or amplifying or super-charging naturally occurring events like hurricanes, cyclones and winter storms, making them stronger and making much more precipitation associated with them today than we would have 50 or 100 years ago.

Read or listen to the full interview here.