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Record temperatures, driven by climate change, help to fuel Hurricane Beryl

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Hurricane Beryl strengthened to Category 5 status, after making landfall yesterday in the Eastern Caribbean.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It brought 150 mph winds and dangerous storm surge to Grenada's Carriacou Island. It is an unusually strong storm for this time of year, in part because of record-high ocean temperatures.

MARTÍNEZ: Michael Copley joins us from NPR's Climate Desk to discuss. Beryl was a Category 4 storm on Sunday, then it got to a 5 late yesterday. I mean, it's the earliest in the year, Michael, we've had a hurricane reach that size in the Atlantic. What's going on?

MICHAEL COPLEY, BYLINE: It's early in the season. This is a big storm, and it got big fast, and that's exactly the kind of thing climate scientists have been expecting. We're seeing record-high ocean temperatures, which fuel hurricanes, and those record temperatures are being driven by climate change. Burning fossil fuels releases gases, like carbon dioxide, that trap heat and make the air in oceans warmer. Andra Garner's a hurricane expert at Rowan University in New Jersey. She says warm water allowed Beryl to grow so quickly over the weekend that it shocked a lot of people.

ANDRA GARNER: It's startling because it's not something we've seen before, but in terms of the science, it's unfortunately kind of right in line with what we expect when we're warming the planet.

COPLEY: Garner published a study last year that found the odds of a storm quickly growing into a major hurricane have gone up in recent decades, as climate change has gotten worse. That's still an area of active research, but it's clear that hotter temperatures are making hurricanes stronger.

MARTÍNEZ: So what's that look like for people on the ground?

COPLEY: I mean, we're talking about stronger winds and more water. Beryl hit parts of the Caribbean yesterday with catastrophic winds, life-threatening storm surge. Grenada's prime minister said the island of Carriacou was flattened. Buildings were damaged and destroyed. Communications were down. You know, when we talk about a Category 4 hurricane, we're talking about winds up to 156 mph. That can cause severe damage to homes, tear off roofs, knock down trees, but the most dangerous threat's often water and flooding. For coastal communities, a big risk is from storm surge. It's essentially walls of water that get pushed onshore. Rain is also a growing threat. Warmer air can hold more moisture, so really big hurricanes can hold a lot of water vapor that comes down as torrential rain. That can threaten inland communities that might not be right in the path of the storm.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, forecasters are expecting an unusually high number of hurricanes this year, so what, if anything, can people do to prepare?

COPLEY: Yeah, we're expecting a really active season. In part, that's because of those really warm temperatures we talked about, and we've seen that these storms can grow really fast, so experts warn people need to take plans ahead of time. Jennifer Collins is a professor at the School of Geosciences at the University of South Florida. She says the time to prepare is before the storm, not after a hurricane is announced.

JENNIFER COLLINS: Because, as you can see, that can happen very quickly, so they need to be kind of thinking very early about all their preparations, to be ready for a hurricane.

COPLEY: That means packing bags you can grab in a hurry and planning ahead of time how you'd evacuate and where you'd shelter. Beryl's expected to pass near Jamaica on Wednesday, where heavy rain and flash floods are possible.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Michael Copley from NPR's Climate Desk. Michael, thanks.

COPLEY: Thanks, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.