Will global warming super-charge hurricanes?

Hurricane Isaac satellite image
Tropical storm Isaac churning in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012. Photo courtesy NOAA.

New study suggests tropical storms will become more intense

Staff Report

Tropical storms may become less frequent as the planet warms up, but those that do form could be increasingly powerful, according to a new study published in the journal Science last week.

How global warming will affect tropical storm formation in the decades ahead has been the subject of intensive research. The new study says that, so far, the warming effects of greenhouse gases on tropical cyclones have been hard to discern because of natural variability and also because air pollution has been masking the impacts.

Aerosol particles, which cool the atmosphere by reflecting sunlight, have cancelled the effects of greenhouse gas pollution on tropical storm formation, the study found. But that compensating effect won’t last much longer if greenhouse gas warming keeps increasing, the scientists said in the study.

As vehicles and power plants added filters and scrubbers to reduce their impact on human health, and levels of man-made aerosols in the atmosphere began to decline. At the same time, greenhouse gas concentrations continued to rise.

With a new climate modeling effort, the new study recalculates the cancelling effects of aerosols and greenhouse gases on tropical cyclones worldwide. T

“The fact that global warming’s fingerprints don’t yet jump out at us when we look at hurricanes isn’t surprising – it’s what current science tells us we should expect,” said lead author Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and School of Engineering. “The same science tells us that those fingerprints will show up eventually in more ultra-powerful storms.”

The scientists reviewed existing studies and data on tropical storm formation, specifically looking at potential intensity. Their new global calculations of the cancelling effect follow a 2015 study led by Lamont’s Mingfang Ting, with Suzana Camargo, also a coauthor on the new paper, that showed similar effects over the North Atlantic, where hurricanes that make landfall in the United States form.

Basic atmospheric physics suggest that hurricanes and cyclones will get stronger as the oceans heat up, since ocean warmth is the primary fuel for such storms.

Less well understood is how climate change will influence the number of tropical cyclones that form each year. Computer models indicate that while the total number of cyclones should decline in a warming climate, more intense, highly destructive storms like Super Typhoon Nepartak are likely to become more common.

Super-strong tropical storms have taken a toll in recent years, including
Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Yolanda, which killed more than 6,300 people as it devastated parts of the Philippines as a Category 5 storm in 2013. Last year, Hurricane Patricia became the second most-intense tropical cyclone on record when its sustained winds reached 215 mph before weakening to hit Mexico with winds still powerful at 150 mph.

The new study found that the largest increases in tropical cyclone potential intensity are expected to be at the margins of the tropics, particularly in the Atlantic and Pacific. The amount of rain that tropical storms bring is also expected to increase as the planet warms, due to increasing water vapor; and coastal flooding from storm surges that accompany tropical storms are expected to become more of a problem as sea levels rise.

The scientists also describe a shift in tropical cyclone tracks toward the margins of the tropics, noting that it is unclear if the shift is a response to warming. Simulations for the western North Pacific suggest that it is, at least in part.


2 thoughts on “Will global warming super-charge hurricanes?

  1. *10 of the 15 busiest Hurricane seasons have occurred since 2000.
    *Storms of all kinds have doubled, world wide.
    *Storm intensity has nearly doubled.
    *Droughts and Heat Waves have doubled.
    *Flooding events have doubled.
    Montana’s Glacier National Park had 150 Pristine Glaciers when Congress voted it a ‘national’ park in 1910 There were 150 pristine glaciers when I visited the awesome park in the late 50’s.
    TODAY, just 25 remain.
    *News Media in Asia is in near panic mode, as their populations are able to see Snow Packs & Ice Sheets recede, year by year. Those Glaciers and Snow Packs are their primary source of water for Drinking & Irrigation.
    *”The Arctic is experiencing a heat wave. Alaska reached temperatures in the 80s, with Deadhorse reaching a record-high temperature of 85 degrees on Wednesday evening. Other cities including Bettles and Eagle reached 85, Fort Yukon hit 84, and Nenana reported 87.
    “A pulse of warm air invaded the North Slope of northern Alaska on Wednesday, bringing some of the warmest air ever recorded there,” meteorologist Jeff Masters explained on his blog, Weather Underground. “Even with the 24-hour sunlight it receives during most of July, the North Slope typically experiences highs only in the 50s and lows in the 30s.”
    *”Greenland also set records in April. Temperatures reached as high as 64 degrees, but even weather stations on the actual ice sheet saw temperatures at 37.6 degrees.”
    *The National Snow & Ice Data Center registered the HISTORIC Satellite Record Low Ice Level…beating last year’s HISTORIC Satellite Record Low Ice Level….which continues a 40+ year Trend.
    *The Same report cited the Antarctic registered it’s 9th lowest Ice Level.

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