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USF geosciences professor discusses how climate change affects hurricanes and other hazards

An aerial view of Hurricane Idalia as it approached the Big Bend region of Florida.
SSEC/CIMSS, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Public domain
Wikimedia Commons
Hurricane Idalia as it approached the Big Bend region of Florida.

A Q&A with Jennifer Collins, a professor in the School of Geosciences at the University of South Florida.

The following is a Q&A conducted with Jennifer Collins, a professor in the School of Geosciences at the University of South Florida. Collins researches weather, climate and how hurricane patterns affect the oceans. Collins has also worked on many projects for the National Weather Service and serves as an officer on the West Central Florida Chapter of the American Meteorological Society. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What made you become interested in climatology?

Jennifer Collins
Jennifer Collins

So, I grew up in the United Kingdom, and there was this storm called The Great Storm of 1987. It had hurricane-force winds and tore down six oak trees in a park that only had seven oak trees, so it was a really big storm. It happened on my birthday, and my friends could not get to my party, and so I was really interested in what this storm was.

I always liked my geography classes, and we learned about hazards, so I’ve always been interested in all types of hazards such as volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes and weather. I think with my interest in geography and hazards, and then that event, it really kicked off my interest in the weather and the climate.

What is the interaction between large-scale climate patterns and seasonal patterns of tropical cyclone activity?

Climate change is a big trend, and it (has) impacts (on) hurricanes such as storm surge, because as the ice sheets melt, you get a higher sea level, as you get thermal expansion of the ocean you get higher sea level. So, the sea level is already high, and then you have storm surge on top of that, it results in an increased amount of flooding.

Climate change with the warmer oceans, that allows the hurricanes to intensify very rapidly. Within 24 hours you can go from a Category 1 to a Category 4 rather quickly, like what we just saw with Hurricane Idalia. You can drop pressure, which equates to an increase in those categories.

We can talk about El Niño, and there’s different phases to that. This year we’re in an El Niño, so we were hoping we would get less hurricanes in the Atlantic because during an El Niño, it affects the oceans and the atmosphere. The change in the atmosphere usually means you get more wind shear over the Atlantic, and wind shear is not good for hurricanes, it chops them up.

You tend to get less hurricanes during an El Niño, so this year is really strange because with (there have been) a lot of intense hurricanes, so that goes against what we typically see in an El Niño. I think the reason for that is the really warm ocean temperatures that we’re seeing this year. It’s kind of negating any impact El Niño would have had. We should have had a more inactive season this year because of El Niño, and now we’re getting a really active season because of the warm temperatures.

"Within 24 hours you can go from a Category 1 to a Category 4 rather quickly, like what we just saw with Hurricane Idalia. You can drop pressure, which equates to an increase in those categories."
Jennifer Collins

How does human behavior relate to hurricane evacuation?

We have these orders, particularly if you’re in zone A, you’ll get an order. Human behavior is going to dictate whether they follow those orders or not and my research has shown just a lot of interesting pieces about how human evacuation behavior. Some of it relates to if they have encountered a past hurricane evacuation order. If they have and they didn’t get hit, then they do not really heed future warnings, which can be troublesome when those warnings are there for reasons of safety.

A lot of evacuations behaviors also are based on past experience with hurricanes. For instance, when I interviewed (people about) Hurricane Irma, those people who had left previously for Hurricane Andrew in 1992, they said they were absolutely leaving the Miami-Dade area because of what they experienced in 1992. They said never again would they endure something like that, and so they evacuated for Irma. If you have not actually experienced a hurricane, sometimes you do not give it as much weight it deserves and that you need to evacuate.

There are other things to consider with human behavior, whether people have elderly family, those in need of medical care, then they stay behind sometimes.

What kind of projects have you done with the National Weather Service?

Currently, just got funded for one project with The National Weather Service, it’s to do a tornado risk perception, and we’re working with several different national weather offices in the Southeast region. We will be looking prior to a tornado coming, we will be interviewing households, and then during when a tornado actually is coming to them, we will do a very short interview, and then another one after the tornado comes.

All this information (is about) how people perceive their tornado risk, and we will actually try to get a measure of their actual tornado risk. We will compare their perceived versus actual risk and provide the information to the National Weather Service because the information will help them for messaging and so on. That’s my most recent project. …

Could you explain your role in the West Central Florida chapter of the American Meteorological Society? 

Sure, so I’ve been an officer probably since around 2005, so almost up to 20 years. In that time I’ve taken on different officer roles, from corresponding secretary where I communicate with the national AMS office on what activities we’re doing. I’ve been vice president and also president for about 10 years. Now my role is called member at large, and we discuss events that we want to do.

During the 20 years, we’ve done many events such as teach for teacher, where our members have put on workshops for K-12 teachers in the community to help them understand weather concepts through experiments. The chapter also sponsors speakers to speak on different weather and climate events. We also have a student award as well for their achievements. So the chapter does quite a few things and as an officer, we kind of get involved in helping organize some of those things. 

Carly Lutzyk is a sophomore at Florida Atlantic University studying multimedia journalism.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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