When the Planet Looks Like a Climate-Change Ad

“We kept on trying to wrap our heads around [that forecast] as we made it.”

A satellite images in which Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Katia are visible
An image from the satellite GOES-16, taken last week (NOAA / CIRA / Colorado State University)

It takes a lot of unusual weather to surprise the director of the National Weather Service. But speaking on Sunday from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in College Park, Maryland, Louis Uccellini couldn’t contain his shock.

“I tell people to look at the two forecasts we’ve made over the last two weeks,” he told me.“We forecast 50 inches of rainfall over eastern Texas. That was a forecast that we kept on trying to wrap our heads around as we made it. And then it verified—and we had to wrap our heads around that, too.”

He continued: “And then, for [Irma], we were predicting a significant right turn in the track. This right turn was being advertised days ahead of time. And that verified, too.”

It has been a stirring month for weather in North America. After a decade-long drought, two major hurricanes made landfall in the continental United States. Record-setting fires raged across the Pacific Northwest. The largest earthquake in a century struck southern Mexico.

There was so much unusual weather that The New York Times ran a front-page story lightly chiding people for thinking that “the End Times were getting in a few dress rehearsals.”

One image from last week seems to best encapsulate the historic weather insanity. It was taken by the newest weather satellite in NOAA’s fleet, known as GOES-16, on the afternoon of Friday, September 8.


In this image, you can see three hurricanes spin across the tropical Atlantic. Left to right, they are: Hurricane Katia, which made landfall in Mexico that night; Hurricane Irma, which was passing between Cuba and the Bahamas; and Hurricane José, which still churns in the open ocean.

But they are not the only visible environmental disasters. Across the western United States, you can see light-gray smoke pouring off the ground and drifting into the atmosphere. Those fumes are the product of massive wildfires burning across Montana, southern California, and the Pacific Northwest.

And there is a third type of disaster, ongoing when this picture was taken, that’s not visible: the southern Mexico earthquake, which left dozens dead.

GOES-16, which was launched last November, is a remarkable machine, imaging the entire Western Hemisphere at high resolution and beaming that data back to Earth in near real-time. Though GOES-16 does not quite see the full spectrum of visible light, imagery scientists at NOAA and Colorado State University are able to adjust its data so that it almost does. (You can see a live version of their feed on their website.)

GOES-16 was not the only satellite capturing incredible imagery this week. Copernicus Sentinel-2A, a spacecraft operated by the European Union, took a stunningly high-resolution image of the eye of Hurricane José as it incubated in the tropical Atlantic. Antti Lipponen, a researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, made this huge version of what it saw:

The eye of Hurricane José above the Atlantic Ocean on September 9, 2017 (Antti Lipponen / Copernicus)

Another U.S. satellite, Landsat, captured the aftermath of one of these storms. In a pair of images from before and after Hurricane Irma made landfall, it showed the U.S. Virgin Islands left virtually defoliated by the storm. (As of right now, there are few reports from the islands. I have not seen a datelined report from an American outlet on a part of the world where more than 100,000 Americans live.)

The U.S. Virgin Islands before and after Irma made landfall (NASA / USGS)

What was behind all this weird weather? 2017 has been a very hot year—as of August, it is the second-warmest on record—which intensifies wildfires and may allow hurricanes to grow stronger.

While climate change does not cause hurricanes or wildfires, it has a role in worsening the effects of both. As I wrote last week, global warming has more than doubled the amount of Western land burned since the 1980s. And though its effects on tropical cyclones are less clear, climate change may be making hurricanes both less frequent and more intense.

For now, the spate of extraordinary weather seems to have slowed. José will rotate in the central Atlantic for at least the next few days. But families and businesses in the crosshairs of any of these storms or systems—be it hurricane, wildfire, or earthquake—will be dealing with the effects for years to come. For a household, a natural disaster does not need to be the End Times for it to be catastrophic.