Wilmington, North Carolina’s largest coastal community, is rightfully proud of its clean air — a selling point officials in the fast-growing region openly use to lure new residents and companies to the Cape Fear Coast.
Thanks to the sea breezes from the nearby Atlantic and federal and state steps over recent decades to reduce emissions from power plant smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes, the Port City regularly ranks near the top of the American Lung Association’s State of the Air annual report. In 2022’s report, released last month, Wilmington came in at No. 2 in the country for cities with the cleanest air for year-round particulate pollution — just behind Cheyenne, Wyoming.
“Years of scientific research have clearly established that particle pollution and ozone are a threat to human health at every stage of life, increasing the risk of premature birth, causing or worsening lung and heart disease, and shortening lives,” the report states.
But a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published this month found that aggressive efforts to reduce particle emissions, while offering a whole host of health benefits, could also be attracting something else that the North Carolina coast knows plenty about: hurricanes.
Dr. Hiroyuki Murakami, a physical scientist with NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of the research paper published in Science Advances, said aggressive efforts by Western countries to reduce emissions has lead to an estimated 50% drop in particulate pollution concentrations in the Northern Hemisphere’s atmosphere between 1980 and 2020.
Overall, that’s good news for the environment and human health.
But, Murakami said, the formation of tropical storms and hurricanes involves a host of factors, including greenhouse gases and natural variability, that impact each other in several ways. One of these factors is the amount of dirty soot in the atmosphere because of what it does — or in this case, no longer does. Less particulate matter in the atmosphere is allowing more sunlight to reach the ocean surface. That, in turn, allows the oceans to warm faster, which feeds storm formation.
Murakami said a warming Atlantic has been a key reason for a 33% increase in the number of tropical cyclones in the past 40 years.
“This was something that was very surprising to me,” he said. “We hadn’t expected to see that.”
The improving air quality is also having another impact: pulling the jet stream farther north. That means hurricanes that might have made landfall somewhere in Florida or the Carolinas can now potentially menace the New York and New England coasts, putting coastal cities and residents unused to dealing with tropical-driven storms in harms way. A more northerly path for the jet stream also reduces the chance of wind shear in the tropics, giving storms a better chance of forming.
The northern Pacific region, another hotbed for tropical storm formation, is seeing an opposite impact from air pollution. In this case, the increasingly dirty air over Southeast Asia, fueled in large part by the rapid industrialization of China and India in recent decades, is hampering the development of tropical cyclones. Murakami said his research found the frequency of storms forming in the western North Pacific is down 14% in recent decades.
Looking at the ‘total impacts’
While the study’s findings might raise some eyebrows, Murakami said the message shouldn’t be to look at reducing efforts to keep cleaning up the atmosphere.
“But it does mean we should take a careful look at what decisions we make in the future, because any changes we make can have multiple effects,” he said, noting Asian countries could see a similar increase in storms as they move to clean up their smog-filled air. “We have to look at the total impact of these decisions.”
Dr. Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, said new the study echoes what other studies have shown, that the particulate pollution had been “masking” some of the warming impacts from man pumping increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“Aerosols were masking that effect, but once we passed the clean air acts in the 1970s and aerosol concentrations began to decrease, that hidden warming once again emerged,” he said.
Mann added that this additional warming can be offset through a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
“But that all depends on us,” he said. “If we act now to reduce carbon emissions substantially in the decade ahead, we can limit further warming, and further intensification of hurricanes.”
Fewer, but more intense storms?
To that end, efforts to clean up the country’s and North Carolina’s air don’t appear to be slowing down — although it’s an open question if enough will be done worldwide to stop a catastrophic warming of the planet later this century.
The Biden administration has made the transition to a clean energy power grid one of its major goals, highlighted by its aggressive push to get more offshore wind farms build off the East Coast. The latest auction took place this month, with Duke Energy and TotalEnergies of France winning a bidding process for sites roughly 20 miles off Southeastern North Carolina.
North Carolina also has adopted an aggressive plan to reduce emissions by pushing the adoption of electric vehicles and shrinking carbon emissions 70% by 2030. Duke, the state’s largest utility, has submitted several scenarios to the N.C. Utilities Commission to meet that goal, all of which would see the state’s largest utility close its six remaining North Carolina coal-fired power plants by 2035.
With fossil fuel usage in Western countries on a downward trend, Murakami said projections are that particulate pollution will remain steady in the North Atlantic and that greenhouse gases will play a bigger role in tropical storm activity.
That likely means fewer tropical storms and hurricanes, but those that do form having the potential to be more intense.
Reporter Gareth McGrath can be reached at GMcGrath@Gannett.com or @GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter. This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network maintains full editorial control of the work.
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