It’s Not Your Imagination: Hurricanes Getting Stronger

Sep 3, 2008 2:41pm

In 2005 — right, by coincidence, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — two major research papers came out suggesting that hurricanes were being strengthened by global climate change.  There was a great deal of hubbub and debate; some researchers said a warmer climate was preventing some storms from forming.  For a while, the issue quieted down. Today — right, by coincidence, in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav — there’s another paper bolstering the theory.  It’s in the journal Nature, which has a summary HERE. In it, James Elsner of Florida State University and two colleagues look at satellite data from the last 25 years.  Though the number of named storms globally, they say, did not appear to increase with gradually-warming oceans, the number that turned into major storms — categories 4 and 5 — did.  Those are storms with winds over 130 mph. They project that if the average temperature of the world’s oceans goes up by one degree Celsius, it could cause "an increase in the global frequency of strong cyclones from 13 to 17 cyclones per year — an increase of 31%." So the debate heats up again.  "I believe that in the next 20 years we’re going to see unprecedented hurricane activity in the North Atlantic," said Judith Curry of Georgia Tech, one of the authors of the 2005 studies, in an interview with ABC News. But Chris Landsea, now at the National Hurricane Center, has been a voice of caution, and he was again when I talked with him today. "Global warming is real; we do have man-made causes for it, and since hurricanes are a natural heat engine, if we warm things up it may provide a little more fuel for the hurricanes," Landsea said. "But all of the modeling and theory suggests that hurricanes could get stronger by a few percent a hundred years from now.  Hurricanes today may be just a tiny bit stronger, maybe one percent stronger today, so even for a Category Five, you may be looking at a couple of miles per hour, out of 170 mile-per-hour peak, due to global warming. "There’s a very, very tiny influence of global warming on hurricanes, in my opinion."
(Above: Tropical Storm Hanna, in a NOAA satellite image.  The remnants of Gustav are visible in the upper left.)

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