Hurricanes and Typhoons

Threatened Coasts Brace for the Future

By | Updated Oct 10, 2016 3:41 PM UTC

Focus the sun’s beams on the tropical ocean at peak intensity. Add in warm, moist air. Stir the pot with the motion of the spinning globe. The results become the most powerful storms on Earth. Whether they’re called hurricanes, typhoons, cyclonic storms or tropical cyclones, they kill people by the thousands and inflict damage in the tens of billions of dollars. Climate change is making one of those ingredients more abundant: warm water. Scientists say that's going to mean more storms, or more intense storms. Either way, it’s not going to be good. From 1980 to 2009 tropical cyclones worldwide killed more than 400,000 people and affected more than 460 million. Three billion people — almost half the world’s population — now live within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of a coastline. Each year, many of them fear storms' high winds and flooding. Their governments fear the reconstruction costs.

The Situation

Hurricane Matthew reached Category 5 strength before battering Haiti in October as a Category 4, killing hundreds and leaving widespread destruction. It was the strongest storm to strike the region since Felix in 2007. It swerved just before reaching Florida and traveled along the coast to the Carolinas, bringing flooding but not the heavy damage that had been feared. In August, Typhoon Mindulle gave Tokyo its first strike in 11 years. The consensus of forecasters is that during the June-November hurricane season the Atlantic basin will see more storms than the 12 that occur in a normal year. For the Pacific, a faded El Nino has left the ocean’s surface somewhat cooler and reduced the frenetic pace of storms in 2015, which included the strongest hurricane ever encountered in the Western Hemisphere. But even one storm can be deadly and expensive: A 2011 calculation found that the median cost of an Atlantic hurricane that hit land in the U.S. was $1.8 billion and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that hurricane damage will rise faster than the economy grows. While hurricanes and similar storms are known for their wind, their most savage element is storm surge, the water they bulldoze onto shore. Storm surges kill an average of 13,000 people a year globally and are responsible for nearly half of all hurricane deaths in the U.S.


The Background

For 100,000 years, humans have been drawn to the sea, where they feasted on fish and traded by ship. Communities grew around harbors and some became large cities — Shanghai, New York — that are now more vulnerable to typhoons and hurricanes. Even before the new threats posed by climate change, disasters have forced some localities to rethink their defenses. After being hit by the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history in 1900, Galveston, Texas, built a 10-mile sea wall and raised its city blocks by as much as 17 feet. New Orleans has used levees and canals to harness the Mississippi River for 200 years, though critics say their construction destroyed wetlands that protected southern Louisiana from storm surges. And flawed levee design led to flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005; more than 900 people died and three-quarters of homes in the New Orleans area were damaged. Cyclone Bhola killed more than 300,000 people in Bangladesh in 1970, so the nation modernized its early warning systems, developed shelters and evacuation plans and constructed coastal embankments.

The Argument

Some large cities have turned to engineering to save them: Tokyo built a massive underground flood diversion facility and New York is planning a protection system around lower Manhattan. In other communities, some urban planners and environmentalists are challenging the right of people to rebuild after storms. There are big practical obstacles to that idea. First, land-use decisions are generally made on a local level, where developers have great clout. Although environmentalists called for the peninsula of Bolivar, Texas, to be left as a natural barrier after much of it was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008, it’s been rebuilt with more expensive homes. Second, it’s pricey. The U.S. government will spend $48 million to relocate two dozen families from the sinking Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, to a new community built on higher ground. Yet rebuilding storm-battered communities in the same place also takes government cash. U.S. critics note this means all taxpayers are paying for beachfront reconstruction that often benefits the wealthy. In poorer parts of the world, simply trying to rebuild and strengthen structures can be daunting. Ninety percent of Tacloban City in the Philippines was destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. One year later, just 1 percent of homes had been rebuilt; the nation’s Commission on Audit found poor planning and mismanagement of funds. 

The Reference Shelf 

  • A 2010 Nature Geoscience article reviewing studies on the effect of climate change on tropical cyclones.
  • The World Meteorological Organization’s Tropical Cyclone Program page.
  • The U.S. National Hurricane Center site has pages on the tropical weather outlook, recent satellite imagerystorm surge and the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.
  • The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a collection of hurricane tracks since 1842.
  • The Engineering for Climate Extremes Partnership promotes resilience in the face of climate change. 
  • Christopher Flavelle of Bloomberg View talked to residents of Isle de Jean Charles in “The First U.S. Climate Refugees” for one of a series of articles on climate change.
  • A Swiss Re report estimates that if a storm like the 1821 Norfolk and Long Island hurricane were to hit the U.S. today, it would cause $100 billion in damage.


First published Aug. 26, 2016

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Brian K Sullivan in Boston at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
John O'Neil at