Skip To Content

Hurricanes, floods, mudslides: is climate change to blame?

In recent weeks, the news of natural disasters has felt relentless. Children have died and millions have their futures threatened.

In Sierra Leone, a mudslide caused by torrential rain, killed at least 500. Hurricane Harvey submerges Houston, in the US. Severe monsoons hit a staggering 41 million people in South Asia, killing 1,400 and leaving 1.8 million children out of school.

And now, we wait anxiously for the full impact of Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, to become clear.

Is climate change to blame? We’ve taken a look at the evidence, and what this means for children.

It’s complicated

Scientists generally agree that climate change cannot be held solely responsible for any one weather event or storm.

The relationship between climate change and extreme weather events isn’t simple.

But it is thought climate change is making storms, heavy rains and flooding worse.

But climate change is making rain heavier

Globally, the first half of 2017 was the second hottest on record, behind only 2016. 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been this century. And scientists say human activity is responsible.

Rising temperatures help to explain the huge quantities of rain this year. When the sea is warmer, more water evaporates and gets sucked up into the air. A warmer atmosphere also has the capacity to hold more moisture, which is then unleashed on land as rain.

According to one estimate, man-made climate change could be responsible for 30% of the rainfall in a storm like Hurricane Harvey.

In Asia, heavy rainfalls are expected to increase by about 20% over the next 30 years.

So climate change may not cause these storms, but it’s likely to make the rain heavier.

Children and adults affected by monsoon flooding this August in Bangladesh

Example: Hurricane Harvey – windspeed and intensity

Hurricanes are powered by evaporation from the sea. So warmer conditions fuel increased windspeed and intensity.

Hurricanes and tropical storms usually weaken as they approach land and lose their source of momentum – hot, wet ocean air. But with Hurricane Harvey in particular, the opposite seems to have happened. Its winds strengthened by 45 mph just before landfall.

While this would not have been impossible without the impact of climate change, there is research to suggest that as the climate continues to warm, giving hurricanes more energy, they may intensify more rapidly just before striking land.

Rising sea levels caused by climate change may then ensure larger storm surges, and stop flood water draining away as quickly.

So what does this mean for children?

It could make diseases that kill children worse

A small number of easily preventable diseases – like diarrhoea and malaria – are responsible for most child deaths. Climate change could make these worse.

For example, by making access to clean water even more difficult, climate change will make it harder to tackle diarrhoea.

It will also speed up the transmission of malaria, and put more children at risk of malnutrition.

A hillside affected by the fatal mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone, this August.

Urbanisation – children living in flood/storm prone areas

Many of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are also the countries seeing the greatest movement of people from rural areas to cities. Half of all children worldwide live in cities.

And, as populations have increased and people have moved in search of work, fast growing cities have expanded into marshes, wetlands, and flood or storm-prone areas.

It could be making more children refugees

The links between climate change and conflict are not well understood – yet.

But recent research suggests a correlation between intergroup conflict and the areas that have felt the impact of climate change, such as increases in temperature and droughts.

Children make up 51% of refugees. Many travel alone or have become separated from their parents.

An member of our Emergency Health Unit a child for malnutrition in Turkana county, Kenya, where communities are badly affected by drought.

Climate change is hurting children

All of this matters for children now, and in the future.

500 million children are estimated to live in flood prone areas, and 115 million are at risk of tropical cyclones. Overall, environmental risks are thought to take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years each year.

Here is another fact: we know that when climate change makes storms and rainfall more intense, it is the poorest and most marginalised children who will bear the brunt.

Our Emergency Fund is responding to both Hurricane Irma, as well as the flooding in South Asia and the mudslide in Sierra Leone.

Help us do whatever it takes to reach children hit by climate change-fuelled disasters wherever they strike by donating to our Children’s Emergency Fund.

Share this article