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Hurricane HarveyClimate change, infrastructure, and the economic impacts of Hurricane Harvey

Published 5 September 2017

Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation with an economy the size of Sweden, and many other cities and towns in southeastern Texas have been devastated by the torrential rains and flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Estimates put total rainfall in some areas as high as 52 inches, shattering the record for highest rainfall from a single storm in the continental United States. Stanford experts comment on how climate change and infrastructure planning contribute to the severity of impacts from extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey.

Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation with an economy the size of Sweden, and many other cities and towns in southeastern Texas have been devastated by the torrential rains and flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Estimates put total rainfall in some areas as high as 52 inches, shattering the record for highest rainfall from a single storm in the continental United States. Casualties continue to mount as heartbreaking stories emerge of the human toll of the catastrophic event. Before it’s over, Harvey could impact as many as 13 million people along the Texas and Louisiana coastlines.

Devon Ryan of Stanford News asked Stanford researchers for their perspective on the causes and impacts of Harvey and what the future holds.

Noah Diffenbaugh is a professor of Earth system science in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and the Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Newsha Ajami is director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West program and co-leads the Urban Water Systems & Institutions Thrust at the NSF-ReNUWIt Engineering Research Center.

Charles Kolstad is a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy.

Stanford News: How is climate change influencing the frequency and severity of extreme events like Hurricane Harvey?
Diffenbaugh:
In terms of Hurricane Harvey, we’re not going to know how much influence climate change had on this particular event until we can do a formal scientific analysis of the conditions and circumstances. However, there are a number of testable hypotheses. We know ocean temperatures have warmed and sea level has risen, so we can analyze how much these changes contributed to the strength and severity of the storm. We know that the atmosphere has warmed and is holding more moisture, and we can analyze whether the increasing water vapor in the air had an effect on the amount of rainfall this storm produced. The path the storm took was unusual – we’ve recently developed a framework to test whether or not the odds of those kinds of specific atmospheric conditions have changed as a result of global warming.