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Otis – the biggest and most important climate event you never heard about

by | Nov 3, 2023 | 0 comments

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There’s more to superstorm Otis than lost lives and billions of dollars of damage, but no-one is talking about it.

Doomscrollers watched it unfold in real time. A tropical storm off the Mexican coast sucked energy from an overheated ocean causing it to metastasize into a monster category 5 hurricane in a mere 12 hours; and this monster was making a beeline for the tropical resort city of Acapulco.

Weather watchers on social media watched agog as this killer system made its way towards an unprepared and vulnerable metropolis. ‘Take care’, they typed; ‘move to shelter quickly’, they implored; ‘stay away from windows’, ‘find elevation above sea level’, ‘God be with you’. What else could you say.

Then images of rising seas and a windy shoreline came through followed by nothing. Acapulco went dark, all comms went down.

Impact

There are no hurricanes on record even close to this intensity for this part of Mexico so Acapulco has never experienced a storm of this intensity. It also had almost no warning or time to prepare.

When daylight arrived on the 25th of October, it revealed a city torn asunder. Every high-rise building had been defenestrated exposing their jagged entrails. Images emerging over the coming days depicted a broken metropolis, debris-clogged streets, cars thrown akimbo, dazed citizens, and uniformed soldiers attempting to restore order.

According to reports, over a hundred people are dead or missing, more than 270,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, around 120 hospitals and clinics were impacted, and around 600 hotels and condominiums were damaged. Over $10 billion in economic losses are expected with Hurricane Otis being one of the costliest catastrophes on record for Mexico. Worse, it should be noted, a majority of homeowners in Acapulco do not have insurance, with even a portion of the commercial real estate also being uninsured.

What a disaster. Yet, the really worrying aspects of Hurricane Otis go way beyond the immediate impacts on the poor citizens of Acapulco. Indeed, there are consequences here that every person on this planet should reflect on.

No models

No-one saw Hurricane Otis coming. Up until the afternoon of October 24, it was just a tropical storm sitting off the Mexican coast. It was expected to cause some damage with windspeeds of up to 100 km per hour, but nothing the locals hadn’t weathered before.

Then, in a matter of hours, it rapidly intensified into a major hurricane with sustained winds of 270 kilometers (165 miles) per hour (one weather station recorded a gust of 329.76km/h). The US National Hurricane Center (NHC), which had been closely monitoring the tropical storm system, called it a “nightmare scenario.”

According to NASA, Otis had “all the right ingredients” for rapid intensification. This included elements such as warm sea surface, a deep layer of warm ocean water, lots of moisture, and relatively low vertical wind shear. Conditions were present for rapid intensification, but no models suggested the speed or magnitude of what actually took place. The NHC defines a rapid intensification as storm winds that increase by 55 km/h in a 24-hour period. Otis grew to twice that intensity in half the time.

Otis was the strongest hurricane on record to hit Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and the fastest-strengthening storm on record in the northeast Pacific – and no weather model forecast its behaviour. Welcome to the no-analogue world of the Anthropocene in which past conditions and understandings no longer guide us in a time of ‘climate boiling’.

Why couldn’t we have forecast this event? Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe explained it like this:
“it’s because data and models all look backwards, at the way things have been. They’re consistently failing to account for how an extra 10 zetajoules of heat per year are powering stronger and more dangerous storms that intensify faster.”

No time

And if our elevated ocean temperatures can intensify storms to killer hurricanes in the space of hours then so much of our disaster preparedness is left in tatters.

Earlier this year the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) set out a vision that “all people on Earth must be protected by early warning systems within five years.” It’s a part of their just released Executive Action Plan to reduce the risk from large disasters.

According to the UNDRR, of all risk reduction and climate change adaptation measures, early warning and early action stand as one of the best-proven and cost-effective methods for reducing disaster deaths and losses. 

All well and good but when your models can no longer forecast the rapid intensification of major storm systems, and the intensification can occur in a matter of hours, early warning and early action simply aren’t possible. Otis has written this in blood.

No interest

The third dimension highlighted by Otis is that humanity is losing the capacity to even notice large-scale catastrophes.

One of the commonest observations appearing in my social media feeds was the lack of coverage of Otis in the mainstream media. Indeed, that was my experience, too. Otis obliterated Acapulco a bit over a week ago but I saw nothing about it in the mainstream news till a couple of small articles in the back of the papers last weekend.

I asked everyone I met if they had heard about what had happened in Acapulco, and no-one knew anything about it.

I knew about it because my work has me listening out for emerging climate science and news, and my social media feeds follow climate and weather watchers. In this space, Otis was big. In the space of mainstream media, Otis was just another big storm in an endless series of big storms.

Such has been the silence over Otis that some have even suggested conspiracy, that some nefarious force is deliberately hiding the news from us. For my money, it’s really more about everyone having a limited capacity to deal with endless disaster.

We only have so much ‘bandwidth’ for disaster stories and currently that bandwidth is overflowing with the horror of Gaza and Ukraine, and the emerging fear being whipped up by Storm Ciarán hitting the UK and France. In Australia we’re also focussed on the growing toll of wildfires in Queensland and the Northern Territory (which is reawakening the demons unleased by our Black Summer experiences of 2019/20).

It’s simply all too much.

The scenes emerging from the impact of Hurricane Otis are reminiscent of the horrible images we’ve all seen from other recent hurricanes (think Lee, Idalia and Hillary just this year). But these earlier hurricanes were effectively modelled, tracked and relatively well understood.

Otis was different; Otis was something new. This needs to be acknowledged.

Banner image: Otis remained a tropical storm until the afternoon of October 24. Then, in a matter of hours, it rapidly intensified into a major hurricane. Just after midnight (Acapulco time) on October 25, Otis made landfall near the beach resort town with sustained winds of 270 kilometers (165 miles) per hour. (Image NASA Earth Observatory)

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