As Hurricane Ian whipped through the Lowcountry as a Category 1 storm, many wondered with two months left of hurricane season whether this would be the first of many more. Scientists can’t predict storm frequency with confidence, but they can predict with certainty that hurricanes will become more intense. What could this mean for the Lowcountry, its citizens, the economy and our treasured coastal places?

Meteorologists use the Saffir-Simpson’s 1 to 5 rating system, developed in the early 1970s, to determine a hurricane’s strength and any damage it may cause. Decision-makers use this scale to communicate each storm’s potential hazards to the public. Unfortunately, this system only takes into account maximum sustained wind speed and not storm surge, rainfall or any spinoff storms, such as tornadoes, that are typically responsible for most damage and casualties caused by storms.

There is talk of amending the scale to include factors other than wind speed to avoid giving the public a false sense of security. For many Lowcountry residents, including myself, there is a perception that a Category 1 or 2 hurricane is relatively insignificant. But there is a history of these lower-rated storms causing exponentially more damage.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the 2018 Category 1 Hurricane Florence caused $24 billion dollars in damage and 53 deaths, which is nearly the same amount of death and destruction as Hurricane Michael that made landfall in the U.S. as a Category 5 one month later. Most of the damage from Hurricane Florence came from the immense amount of rainfall that swelled upland rivers in the Carolinas, leading to historic flooding. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 storm yet had a higher storm surge and killed more people than the Category 5 Hurricane Camille in 1969 which hit the same region. These hazards weren’t considered when rating the hurricane and therefore left many in harm’s way.

Rising temperatures mean increased coastal hazards

A 2022 study published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences shows 2021 global ocean temperatures were the hottest recorded by scientists. Not only has the ocean been steadily warming since 1958, but the rate of warming since the 1980s has been eight times faster than any previous decade. Without a doubt, scientists blame human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, land use change and deforestation, for the warming.

The increase in sea surface temperatures has led to the “extreme rapid intensification” (when wind speeds increase 35 mph or more in a 24-hour period) of recent hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, Michael, Ida and now Ian. Sea-level rise coupled with projected increases in precipitation from hurricanes will lead to more destructive storms, especially to low-lying areas and vulnerable populations in our region.

According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the Southeast is particularly at risk of climate hazards due to our rapidly growing population, tourism-based economy and vulnerable coastal ecosystems. Any interruptions or deterrents to tourism activities can have devastating impacts on the local economy. Analysts at The Perryman Group estimate Hurricane Florence cost South Carolina “$3.3 billion in expenditures, $1.4 billion in real gross product and nearly $1.0 billion in real personal income.” This analysis does not take into consideration the cost of any losses to our ecological resources such as forests, oyster beds, marshes, fisheries and wetlands. If the intensity of hurricanes increases we can assume that future economic and environmental impacts of single storms will continue to be devastating.

Adaptation and mitigation strategies are key

One of the most effective ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change and hurricanes is to protect our natural coastal habitats. According to a 2013 Scientific American article, 67% of our nation’s coast is protected by oyster beds, mangroves and wetlands. Should these habitats continue to disappear, more than 1 million additional citizens and billions of dollars in property values and other economic resources would be put at risk.

There are a myriad of climate adaptation and mitigation opportunities that the region is considering. In 2019, The Dutch Dialogues Charleston’s final report suggests an integrative approach to resiliency using lessons learned from the Netherlands and other low-lying vulnerable places. This report, a product of multi-year engagement with international and local leaders, scientists and stakeholders, also stresses the importance of protecting and rebuilding our coastal natural buffers.

There are many ways to get involved with the climate resiliency discussion happening here in Charleston. Contact your local elected officials and ask whether they understand climate change and what’s at risk. Tell them the importance of developing meaningful regional climate adaptation plans that not only protect the economy, but also the environment. Consider becoming involved with one of the many groups working on these issues such as the Coastal Conservation League, the Charleston Climate Coalition and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Toni Reale is the owner of Roadside Blooms, a unique flower, plant, crystal and fossil shop in Park Circle in North Charleston. Formerly a Geology Instructor at the College of Charleston for over a decade, Reale is still passionate about environmental issues and interesting topics in science.

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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.