How Global Warming Is Turbocharging Monster Storms

Hurricane Florence drew strength from the warm surface waters of the Atlantic Ocean, lingered over North Carolina for days and dropped massive amounts of rain. Scientists attribute 50 percent of its total rainfall to the effects of global warming.
FE_ClimateChange_01_1033095750 Source: NOAA/Getty

As Hurricane Florence approached the tiny port town of Wilmington, North Carolina, Steven Pfaff took small solace in the knowledge that there hadn’t been much rainfall in August.

He hoped the absorbent ground would soak up whatever punishment Florence might inflict; when Hurricane Matthew arrived in 2016, the ground was already soggy, and the winds easily toppled trees in the loose earth.

Pfaff hunkered down in the offices of the National Weather Service (NWS), where he is a warning coordination meteorologist. There were shutters on the windows and a tornado shelter. But the 100-miles-per-hour wind was not the big problem. As Florence made landfall, it slowed to a crawl and dumped torrential rains. From his desk, he could hear the sounds of cracking wood as the trees gave way. The office smelled like a woodshop.

“The ground quickly saturated,” he says. “That buffer was immediately wiped away. We went from rivers well below flood stage to now we’re talking historic levels in some places. That’s how intense this rain was.”

Anthony Norris watched the downpour from nearby Elizabethtown. As deputy fire chief, he’d seen his share of bad weather, and Florence didn’t impress him at first. “It seemed like the normal storm that comes through,” he says. Then one road started to wash out after another, until the town was isolated—no one could come in or out.

The numbers released later by the NWS tell the story: more than 26 inches of rainfall in Wilmington, nearly 36 inches in Elizabethtown—about half a year’s worth of precipitation. In a week, more fell on North ­Carolina. The storm put about 10,000 people

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