Intended for healthcare professionals


Tropical cyclones and public health: how climate change is driving increasingly extreme weather—an essay by Fintan Hughes, Jack Hodkinson, and Hugh Montgomery

BMJ 2017; 359 doi: (Published 09 November 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;359:j4908
  1. Fintan Hughes, human physiology researcher1,
  2. Jack Hodkinson, PhD candidate2,
  3. Hugh Montgomery, director1
  1. 1Institute of Sport Exercise and Health, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2Department of Physics, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  3. Correspondence to: F Hughes

Doctors must advocate for less use of fossil fuel, write Fintan Hughes, Jack Hodkinson, and Hugh Montgomery, if the harms to public health seen in this year’s hurricane season are not to become more regular occurrences

Throughout the 60 million years of the carboniferous period, which ended 300 million years ago, carbon dioxide was drawn down from the atmosphere and sequestered in fossil fuels. These fuels have only recently been burnt at scale. Cars first outnumbered horses in New York City just over 100 years ago, but there are now 1.2 billion vehicles on the road worldwide, and airlines carry over 400 000 passengers every hour. Burning fuels has increased atmospheric carbon dioxide substantially from 280 to 406 ppm since 1850.

In 1896, Nobel Laureate and physical chemist Svante Arrhenius predicted that such rises could increase global surface temperatures. By 1970 climate scientists widely recognised this causal relation. In 2016, the average land surface temperature was 1.42°C higher than the 20th century average, with an increase in average global temperature of 1.1°C.1

Food shortages and the spread of disease resulting from climate change have been well described.2 However, the oceans have also been affected: water and ice have absorbed 93% of the net global energy gain caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and their surface temperatures have risen by 0.7°C since preindustrial times.3 Polar sea ice is melting—its surface area 2 000 000 km2 smaller in 2017, the minimum Arctic sea ice extent in September being 44% lower than the 1981-2010 average—and sea levels are rising by 3.4 cm a decade.

From heat to cyclones

Heat in our atmosphere and oceans causes air to rise and water to evaporate. This water precipitates as rain, and rising air creates pressure differences that cause wind. The resulting dynamic system is …

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