More than a decade has passed since a major hurricane has made landfall in the United States, but Hurricane Matthew is likely to break that streak as it barrels toward Florida and the East Coast.
As carbon levels increase and the global temperature rises, scientists say major storms like the Category 3 Hurricane Matthew could become stronger and more frequent.
Hurricane Matthew has killed at least 280 people, most of them in Haiti, as the storm battered the Caribbean and moved toward the Bahamas, according to the New York Times.
The storm hit the island nation as a Category 4 storm, and had been downgraded to a Category 3 before strengthening again. Friday morning, the storm had weakened once again to a Category 3.
The storm is moving along the Florida coast as of Friday morning, and it's expected to travel through Georgia and the Carolinas before curving back into the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday morning.
Should the storm make landfall in Florida, it will be the first major hurricane to do so since Wilma in 2005, according to the New York Times. Hurricane Hermine, a Category 1 storm, hit the state in September.
A Sign of What’s to Come?
Carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve ever been, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever fall below that measurement again.
To understand the relationship between carbon dioxide and climate change, think of CO2 as a blanket around the earth, preventing energy from floating off into space. As the energy becomes trapped, it turns into radiated heat that drives up the global temperature.
"We’re seeing climate changes at the more pessimistic end of the range that [was] anticipated by scientists,” President Obama said at South by South Lawn earlier this week. “So we’re really in a race against time."
Evidence suggests that climate change would cause the strongest storms to become even stronger, and to happen more often, Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times.
The intensity, duration, and frequency of the strongest hurricanes have all increased since the early 1980s, according to The National Climate Assessment.
Sea Levels Rising
As carbon dioxide levels rise, driving up the global temperature, ocean levels will continue to march upward as well.
The pace of rising sea levels has increased dramatically over the past century, and scientists say the ocean level could rise up to a total of 6.6 feet by 2100.
This could spell the end for coastal cities like New York, Miami, and New Orleans, among other global catastrophes.
Combining these rising sea levels with a greater number of major hurricanes creates the potential for untold levels of death and destruction.
“Storm surges and flooding are big killers, so this is a big worry,” Kerry Emanuel told The Guardian. “If Hurricane Sandy occurred 100 years earlier it may not have flooded lower Manhattan because the sea was about 1ft lower in 1912.”
While some may take a more fatalistic view of global warming, there are steps we can take to fend off disaster. We can expand the use of renewable energy, increase fuel efficiency in our vehicles, and place caps on carbon emissions, among other steps.
“If we tap the brakes now, then we don’t go over the cliff,” Obama said at South by South Lawn.
“When you think about climate change there’s a big difference between the oceans rising three feet or ten feet,” he said. “… Three feet means you move the houses back a little bit from the beach. Ten feet means the beach doesn’t exist.”
This report has been updated to reflect the number of people killed by Hurricane Matthew, the storm's path, and strength.