Hurricane Isaias marks one of the earliest hurricane seasons ever

The record-breaking storm lashed the Southeast US before working up the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
satellite image of hurricane isaias
Hurricane Isaias on August 4th RAMMB

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Hurricane Isaias is now the fifth named storm of the year to make landfall in the continental US, continuing what has been an incredibly early hurricane season. The last time that five named storms had hit this soon was in August 1916. We’ve now beaten that record by about two weeks. It’s the ninth named storm of 2020 (not every storm has made landfall in the US), and the earliest one on record. The last weather event to hold the record was Hurricane Irene in 2005, which hit eight days later in the year.

Meteorologists initially thought the storm might weaken as it passed over the mountainous island of Hispaniola last week, but it instead maintained its strength and intensified into a Category 1 hurricane as it moved towards the US. Isaias made landfall in the Carolinas on Monday night, and is now moving up the coast.

The hurricane has already left some 500,000 homes without power and brought record-breaking high tides. Though the National Hurricane Center downgraded to a tropical storm level this morning, it’s still expected to bring massive rainfall and intense winds as it moves north.

Generally, severe seasons like this are rapidly becoming the norm. Recent studies have shown an increasing chance of major hurricanes (i.e. one of Category 3 or higher) over the past 40 years as our climate has shifted. Warmer waters on the ocean’s surface enable storms to pick up more energy as they move, increasing the wind speed as well as the destruction they cause. But there’s some confusion over whether hurricanes really have gotten worse, as there are different ways to measure the severity of a storm. If you look solely at how much damage it does to a populated area, you’ll see that monetary damage on the US coasts has increased dramatically in recent years. But that’s largely because far more people live on the coasts today than they ever have. After adjusting for the increase in population, the strong trend showing more destruction in recent years mostly goes away.

None of that is to say that hurricanes aren’t getting worse, though. There are still small increases to the frequency and severity of storms in recent years that constitute a trend, and multiple studies have now demonstrated that global warming really is increasing wind speeds—and thus the potential destructiveness—of hurricanes. Some meteorologists have even suggested adding a Category 6 to the storm scale.

This year, the US might fare even worse during hurricane season due to a wave of mass evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the federal CARES act included an eviction moratorium, it expired on July 25th and 110 million residents are at risk of being homeless by September. Shelters already struggle to handle the crowds of people who are left without shelter in the wake of a storm, so any increase in housing insecurity before an event means more people are exposed to the elements. All of these problems disproportionately impact communities of color, too.

Hurricane Isaias may just be the beginning of particularly harmful hurricane season. Between the coronavirus and global warming, states that are in the path of strong Atlantic storms will face immense challenges over the coming months.