Researchers Tie Climate Crisis to Hurricane Maria's Record-Breaking Rainfall Over Puerto Rico

A new study about the record-breaking rain that Hurricane Maria dropped on Puerto Rico in 2017 offers more evidence that the climate crisis is making extreme weather events more common and destructive.

“What we found was that Maria’s magnitude of peak precipitation is much more likely in the climate of 2017 when it happened versus the beginning of the record.”
—David Keellings, lead author

The report, recently published in the American Geophysical Union’s journal Geophysical Research Letters, focuses on data from the 129 major storms that impacted the U.S. territory between 1956 and 2016.

“What we found was that Maria’s magnitude of peak precipitation is much more likely in the climate of 2017 when it happened versus the beginning of the record,” lead author David Keellings, a geographer at the University of Alabama, said in a statement Tuesday.

Specifically, a storm like Maria—which caused unprecedented flooding and landslides that severely damaged the island’s electrical, water, and communications infrastructure—was nearly five times more likely two years ago than it was in the middle of the last century, according to the study. Maria produced more rain than any other regional storm in the six decades studied.

Previous research tied Hurricane Harvey’s intense rains—which hit the Houston area in 2017—to human-caused global warming, but this study was the first to examine rainfall in Puerto Rico. Those findings build on scientists’ broader warnings in recent years about the future of extreme weather.

As Keellings put it, “Due to anthropogenic climate change it is now much more likely that we get these hurricanes that drop huge amounts of precipitation.”

“Some things that are changing over the long-term are associated with climate change—like the atmosphere getting warmer, sea surface temperatures increasing, and more moisture being available in the atmosphere,” he explained. “Together they make something like Maria more likely in terms of its magnitude of precipitation.”

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