Hurricanes Have a New Target: The North Atlantic

Huge waves strike the harbor wall and lighthouse at Porthcawl, South Wales, on Oct. 16, 2017, as storm Ophelia hits the U.K. and Ireland.
SourceGEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images

Hurricanes Have a New Target: The North Atlantic

By Stephen Starr


Because although we can argue over climate change all day long, more violent storms are on the horizon, in newer parts of the world.

By Stephen Starr

When ex-Hurricane Ophelia smashed its way through Ann Elliot’s farm 30 miles outside Dublin on Oct. 16, it left behind destruction and death. “What we saw was just carnage,” she told a local radio show. Four pregnant cattle were electrocuted and killed by a downed power line. “It’s a big financial loss. I was devastated.”

Named after a tragic Shakespearean character, Ophelia was the most powerful storm to hit the Emerald Isle in more than 50 years. It had an “ex” prefixed to its description only because it was recharacterized a post-tropical cyclone instead of a hurricane by the time it barreled into the Irish coast.

It was as bad, probably slightly worse, than anything we’ve experienced.

Aodhan FitzGerald, Irish Marine Institute

Schools and universities were ordered shut for two days. Public transportation services were canceled, and major shopping stores shuttered their doors. It fueled the highest wave — 58 feet — and the highest wind speeds ever recorded here.

“It was as bad, probably slightly worse, than anything we’ve experienced. That wave height was phenomenal,” says Aodhan FitzGerald, the research vessel manager at the Irish Marine Institute, who has worked on the Atlantic Ocean’s high seas for 11 years. In Spain and Portugal, the storm’s high winds have been blamed for fueling forest fires that killed dozens of people.

Ireland is certainly no stranger to rain, and the weakened tail end of hurricanes from the U.S.’s eastern seaboard regularly drench this part of Northern Europe. But when Ophelia landed, killing three people and cutting power to a fifth of the country’s network, Ireland knew it was experiencing something very different — something people here may have to get used to in the years and decades to come. As may people across large parts of Western Europe.

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Waves break around the church in the harbor at Porthleven, Cornwall, as former Hurricane Ophelia hits the U.K. and Ireland with gusts of up to 80 mph.

Source Ben Birchall/PA Images

Using one of the world’s most powerful weather forecast modeling systems, researchers in the Netherlands predict that as the Earth’s climate warms, the number of hurricane-strength fall storms raking Western Europe will increase from two today to 13 by the end of the century. 

While most Atlantic hurricanes soak up energy from warm waters hundreds of miles off the West African coast before slaloming west toward the Caribbean and North America, Ophelia marched north toward Ireland, which shares a latitude with the lower Hudson Bay in Canada, a full 620 miles north of Detroit.

“Ophelia was unusual mainly because of how far east she formed, and how intense she got under what should have been marginal sea surface temperatures,” says Peter Thorne of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units (ICARUS) at Maynooth University in county Kildare. Globally, no single or short-term group of violent weather events can, as yet, be proven beyond doubt to occur as a result of climate change, and it’s no different for Ophelia, says Thorne. But it may, in the future, lead to violent weather extending its “breeding ground” much farther north than ever before, he adds. 


Warmer-than-normal Atlantic seawater was blamed for Ireland’s wettest single day in 60 years last August, which washed away bridges and triggered landslides across the country’s northern counties. And with a second major storm lashing Ireland just four days after Ophelia, and a record number expected during the coming winter, experts say worse may be yet to come for Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Though the burning of fossil fuels contributes to warming sea surface temperatures, “the question is whether climate change is set to make the risk of such events greater,” says Thorne of ICARUS, who notes “bad luck” also played a role in Ophelia’s passing over Ireland.

Conservative Irish politicians continue to claim that climate change is nothing more than a myth. Danny Healy-Rae, an Independent member of Ireland’s Parliament who represents one of Ophelia’s worst-hit areas, said in a parliamentary debate last year that he believes “God above is in charge of the weather.” Climate change skeptics in Ireland may also be bolstered by the fact that when compared with hurricanes Harvey and Irma and their expected, combined damage cost of $290 billion, Ophelia’s fallout, at $1.18 billion, is tiny.

As residents of Puerto Rico and Houston can relate, the biggest problems facing Ireland are emerging only since Ophelia’s high winds and the TV camera crews departed. When pumping stations and treatment plants failed or were flooded out, raw sewage flowed into rivers and waterways, poisoning marine life. Two people died in the days following the storm while carrying out repair work, and for many in coastal and low-lying areas, insurance premiums are set to rocket. Ophelia carried sand from the Sahara and smoke from forest fires in Portugal that made for great Instagramming in the U.K., but may endanger people with respiratory illnesses.

The fractious global debate around climate change is likely to rage on, but the people of Ireland and Northern Europe, more accustomed to seeing the effects of a warming planet from a television screen, now have something new to ponder: Are we the next climate change victims?