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Hurricanes could push deeper into U.S. in coming decades

A new projection found more intense storms triggered by climate change will expose millions more properties to wind damage in the next 30 years.
People pass destroyed houses and businesses after Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Fla., on Oct. 1.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images

Stronger storms fueled by climate change will penetrate deeper into the United States and threaten parts of the country unaccustomed to high-speed winds, according to a new analysis of the country's vulnerability to tropical cyclones.

More than 13 million properties in the U.S. that are not currently affected by tropical cyclones will be at risk of damage from hurricane-force winds in the decades ahead, according to the study.

The report on worsening winds and their projected financial impacts was released Monday by First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group based in Brooklyn, New York.

Researchers found that more intense storms brought on by climate change would expose millions more properties to wind damage in the next 30 years, particularly as tropical cyclone winds penetrate farther inland and as storms migrate poleward up the East Coast.

The report also estimated the dollar value of expected damage to residential and commercial structures from hurricanes.

This year, researchers estimated that the country could expect to see an annual loss of $18.5 billion as a result of hurricane-force winds, increasing to about $20 billion in 2053. Of that increased damage, roughly $1 billion is projected to come from increased exposure in Florida alone, the study found.

Much of the mid-Atlantic region will experience an increased risk of damaging winds, the group’s models show. States such as Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee, for instance, could see gust speeds increase from 87 mph to 97 mph during strong hurricanes, according to the researchers.

“As a strong storm comes ashore and gets cut off from its fuel source of warm ocean waters, the stronger the storm is, the better chance it has of penetrating deeper into the interior,” said Ed Kearns, First Street Foundation's chief data officer. “So, you start to see risks show up like in western Tennessee. There are some patterns where how far inland they went kind of surprised me.”

Scientists have said that while climate change is not expected to boost the number of hurricanes that strike each year, it will intensify the storms that do form.

In Florida, the state most vulnerable to hurricanes, the researchers also expect to see shifts over the next 30 years. Models indicate that hurricanes could make landfall in more northern areas of the state, such as Jacksonville, Kearns said.

“This shift in location and strength of hurricanes in Florida alone results in the number of properties that may face a Category 5 hurricane from 2.5 million in 2023 to 4.1 million by the year 2053,” the researchers wrote in the study.

A man carrying bottled water wades through a flooded neighborhood after Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sept. 29.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images file

First Street’s new projections focused on worsening winds, but studies have found that climate change will also make storms rainier and increase the risks of catastrophic flooding. The organization has previously conducted a similar analysis of changing flood risk in the U.S. in the coming decades, but those models included other rainfall events and riverine flooding, in addition to hurricanes.

The report was designed to quantify the financial impacts from tropical cyclones to all individual properties in the contiguous U.S. today and 30 years from now, based on projections of climate change.

Kearns said he hoped the analysis would raise awareness among businesses and property owners and help policymakers better prepare for the consequences of a changing climate.

“Compared to the historic location and severity of tropical cyclones, this next generation of hurricane strength will bring unavoidable financial impacts and devastation that have not yet been priced into the market,” Matthew Eby, founder and chief executive officer at First Street Foundation, said in a statement.

The report used historic observations of hurricane formation, strength and landfall rates, and incorporated how these factors are affected by changes to sea surface temperatures, sea levels and atmospheric temperatures in a warming climate. The group's peer-reviewed model included 50,000 synthetic storm tracks that were used to gauge how wind direction and speeds would be altered in various future climate scenarios.

The new wind model adds to First Street's collection of risk assessments, which include risks of flood, fire and heat to properties in the contiguous United States.