An aerial view of floods and damages from Hurricane Dorian on Freeport, Grand Bahama on September 5, 2019.

As Hurricane Dorian Wreaks Havoc, Scientists Discuss Climate Change Connection

Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas on Sunday, bringing what the country’s prime minister called “generational devastation” to Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands. The Category 5 storm was the strongest to ever hit the islands, destroying thousands of homes and leaving at least 30 people dead — a number expected to rise drastically in coming days.

As emergency responders first began to mobilize, their efforts were hampered by Dorian’s pace, as it crawled over the islands — at times moving forward at just 1 mile per hour. Stalling, as the phenomenon is referred to by meteorologists, also led to intense rainfall during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in 2018, and it’s a pattern they say is likely to continue.

According to research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the average forward speed of hurricanes in the North Atlantic has decreased by 17 percent over the past 70 years. Scientists don’t fully understand the reason, but they think it has to do with a slowdown of winds, which is believed to be at least partly caused by global warming. (Wind is mainly driven by temperature differences between the Arctic and the equator, so as the Arctic is warming, windspeeds are dropping.)

“We are definitely seeing a trend toward stalling of these systems after they make landfall, and there may be a climate change connection,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University, told InsideClimate News. But, he said, “this is really at the leading edge of the science and is still being debated.”

More generally, experts say, ocean warming caused by climate change is increasing the intensity of storms, along with their associated rainfall and storm surges.

While Hurricane Dorian has weakened as it continues up the East Coast of the U.S., Georgia and the Carolinas are still feeling its wrath, with flooding, tornados, and power outages affecting tens of thousands.

Also in the news:

• Health officials reported this week that a contaminant present in marijuana products used in e-cigarettes may be linked to a series of illnesses that have been reported around the country. The chemical, an oil derived from vitamin E, is not known to be harmful when ingested or applied to the skin, but could be dangerous when inhaled, experts say. Since last June, more than 200 cases of severe respiratory disease among people who use e-cigarettes have been reported across 25 states, primarily affecting teenagers and young adults with no underlying health issues. The patients suffer from chest pain, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and coughing. Some patients have been hospitalized and at least two have died — believed to be the first deaths linked to vaping in the U.S. Investigators note that despite their findings so far, they haven’t yet ruled that vitamin E is the culprit and are still looking into other substances. (Washington Post)

• Drama punctuated what was supposed to be a conciliatory staff meeting on Wednesday at MIT’s beleaguered Media Lab. The lab has been reeling since it was revealed last month that it had benefitted from handsome donations made by the wealthy financier, convicted pedophile, and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide in his jail cell in early August. The lab’s current director, Joi Ito, was at the center of the storm for accepting the money, and despite some calls for his resignation, Ito has said he plans to stay on to guide the lab’s post-scandal soul-searching. That process was ostensibly the goal of Wednesday’s all-hands meeting, but according to the MIT Technology Review, things went awry when former Media Lab director and co-founder Nicholas Negroponte stood up to make some impromptu comments. While the Tech Review’s original re-telling of the event was edited and updated to reflect some ambiguity in his comments, the publication suggested one thing was clear: Negroponte highly values his coziness with America’s billionaires and their ability to underwrite science. “If you wind back the clock, I would still say, ‘Take it,’” Negroponte declared of his advice to Ito, made years ago, to accept Epstein’s largesse. Whether he meant he would do so even knowing what is now understood about Epstein’s crimes was unclear, and a later comment offered to The Boston Globe suggested not. Still, it was enough to generate tears among some meeting participants, as well as increasingly pitched calls for Negroponte to sit down and “shut up!” (MIT Technology ReviewThe Boston Globe)

• In Baltimore, the burden of rising temperatures is borne disproportionately by poorer neighborhoods — where tree cover is scarce, the heat island effect is pronounced, and the heat index inside some homes can go days without ever dropping far below 90 degrees Fahrenheit. So reports a new series of investigative stories by Code Red, a collaboration of journalists from the University of Maryland, NPR, and other media outlets in the Baltimore region. The team spent a year gathering and analyzing temperature data across the city and speaking with climate and health experts. They also spent time with residents of McElderry Park, one of the city’s hottest — and poorest — neighborhoods. There, rising temperatures aren’t just a discomfort but a threat to physical and mental well-being. The reporters found, for instance, that low-income residents in hotter neighborhoods have higher rates of heat-related chronic health conditions, compared with low-income residents in other parts of the city. It “can literally be a life or death issue,” said Jad Daley, whose nonprofit American Forests is working to expand tree canopy in urban areas. (Code Red)

• The New York Times announced Tuesday the end of its sponsorship of The Oil & Money conference, a major meeting of energy industry players hosted by the analytics and research firm Energy Intelligence, now in its 40th year. Speakers at this year’s event include executives from Royal Dutch Shell and BP, as well as top officials from oil-producing nations like Qatar and Iraq. A statement from Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy cited the publication’s expanding coverage of climate change, environmental issues, and energy policy as the impetus for the move. “We want there to be no question of our independence or even the potential appearance of a conflict of interest,” said Murphy. The Times has of late faced increasing pressure from activists to not only drop its sponsorship of the conference, but to include more coverage of climate change in its pages and to use more urgent language in its reporting on such topics. Over the summer, campaigners from environmental groups including Extinction Rebellion staged multiple protests outside the newspaper’s headquarters in Manhattan. (The Guardian)

• On Wednesday evening, CNN hosted a seven-hour “Climate Crisis Town Hall,” during which each of the 10 top Democratic contenders spent 40 minutes discussing their plans to slow global warming. The historic talkathon — likely the longest stretch of air time a U.S. news network has devoted to climate policy — was somewhat of a consolation prize after the Democratic National Committee shut down any hope of a debate on the subject, but drew urgency from updates on Hurricane Dorian peppered in between speaking slots. Contrary to their potential opponent, President Donald Trump, the candidates all agreed on the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the need to rejoin the Paris climate accord, and the necessity of the U.S. reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the very latest. Where they differed were on the best policies to reach this goal and the price tag of such plans — from $1.5 to 2 trillion for Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ $16.3 trillion. Viewers on social media praised young audience members – many of which were university students or members of the youth-led advocacy organization Sunrise Movement — for challenging candidates with tough questions on campaign donations and past policies, while criticizing CNN’s moderators for focusing on specific sacrifices Americans would be forced to make, from cheeseburgers to lightbulbs. Said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in response to such a question: “This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to be talking about. That’s what they want us to talk about: This is your problem.” (Multiple sources)

• And finally: As the new school year begins, parents in New York will no longer be able to invoke religious beliefs to exempt their children from receiving necessary vaccinations. Joining California, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Maine, the state passed a law in June barring all non-medical exemptions to vaccination. The policy change comes after a massive measles outbreak led to hundreds of cases throughout New York City and other parts of the state. New York’s law is considered among the strictest in the country, with no option for parents to delay and no allowances made for disabled children. Of the 26,000 children who were previously able to obtain religious exemptions, some are now being pulled out of school due to their parents’ persisting fears of harm caused by vaccines. Despite more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies that indicate no link between vaccines and autism, many parents remain firm in their belief that vaccines may be a contributing factor. Dr. Oxiris Barbot, New York City’s health commissioner, warned that as the school semester begins, the threat of another measles outbreak is still very real. “Our best defense against renewed transmission is having a well-immunized city,” the commissioner stated.  (The New York Times)