Hurricane Ian packs 'catastrophic' storm surge threat made worse by climate change

Hurricane Ian is forecast to make landfall Wednesday along Florida's southwest coast, bringing with it a potentially “catastrophic” 12-foot storm surge made worse by rising sea levels due to climate change.

The National Hurricane Center posted a forecast on Tuesday that showed that a stretch of coastline south of Tampa Bay down to Bonita Bay could see between 8 and 12 feet of storm surge as Ian makes its way on land.

“In some areas there will be catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Tuesday news conference. “When you have 5 to 10 feet of storm surge, that is not something you want to be a part of.”

Strengthening to a Category 3 storm on Tuesday, Ian was expected to intensify by day’s end into a monster Category 4 storm as it churned northeast toward Florida’s flat, low-lying coast. The storm could weaken slightly Wednesday evening before making landfall, but the storm surge it generates will remain a serious threat due to rising sea levels.

Making things worse are climate change and Ian overlapping with a semiannual king tide.

Sea levels around Florida have risen on average 8 inches since 1950, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with the bulk of that rise coming in recent years as increasing global temperatures have sped up the melting of the polar ice caps. Due to a variety of factors, sea level rise does not happen uniformly, and the ocean has risen in St. Petersburg, which sits on Tampa Bay, by 9 inches, according to NOAA.

All that additional water will make a dangerous situation even more so.

“Life-threatening storm surge looks increasingly likely along much of the Florida west coast where a storm surge warning is en effect, with the highest risk for Fort Myers to the Tampa region,” the National Hurricane Center said in an 11 a.m. advisory issued Tuesday. “Residents in these areas should listen to advice given by local officials and follow evacuation orders if made for your area.”

Mandatory evacuation orders have gone up in the nine counties: Charlotte, Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lee, Levy, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota.

Storm surge is not the only threat from Ian, which is also expected to pack winds exceeding 110 miles per hour when it makes landfall. It could drop as much as 24 inches of rain on sections of the west coast.

While recent studies have found that climate change makes hurricanes wetter and causes them to intensify more quickly, for years scientists have warned that Florida, the flattest state in the U.S., faces extreme risks due to climate change.

Fort Myers, the second-fastest-growing county in the U.S., sits at an elevation of just 10 feet above sea level. Forecasts show that South Florida can count on another 11 inches of sea level rise by 2040 as polar ice melt continues apace due to rising temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Over that same span of time, warming waters will continue to energize hurricanes at a faster rate than previously observed.