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Hurricane formation and climate change
When "Andrew" made its hit on Florida in 1992 local residents and authorities received a rather rude wake-up call on how vulnerable they were. The city of Homestead was ravaged. The total damage done was $ 30 billion, of which $ 17 billion was insured. A number of insurance companies went bankrupt.
The last really violent hurricanes which hit the area in the vicinity of Miami were
forgotten by most people. In 1926 a cat. IV (* see below) made a straight hit
on Miami destroying much of the - in those days - smaller city.
In 1928 the Lake Okeechobee storm took the lives of 2000 people, and in 1935
the Labor Day Storm, the most violent and vicious hurricane ever making landfall
in the USA (a cat. V), made its onslaught onto the Florida Keys, killing 400 on
the islands and making an end to Flaglers' Railway. The train on it perished in
The year 2005 provided a second wake-up call. The name was 'Katrina'. The final toll probably will end up to be over ±1500. The total damage (including all long term economic damage caused by 'Katrina' and 'Rita' – offshore oil & natural gas installations) may well end up in the order of $ 150 billion.
Hurricanes & global warming
This also raises the question whether people living in vulnerable areas should prepare for more violent hurricanes in the event of a warming climate.
In three articles (ref. 1, 2 and 3) the conclusion is reached that in case of a higher CO2 world the Sea Surface Temp.'s in the NW Pacific would rise by some 2°C and the intensity on the hurricanes would increase by 5 - 11% in terms of maximum wind velocity. Their central pressure would decrease by 7 - 24 mbar, their radius with hurricane force winds would increase by 2 - 3% and, probably most important in many cases, their near storm precipitation would increase with some 30% according to the model studies of ref. 2. On a qualitative basis these conclusions would also hold for other hurricane areas in the world like in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
Another result (from ref. 3) is that the occurrence of hurricanes will probably not increase. The availability of warm surface water with a temperature of over 26°C is a prerequisite for the formation of hurricanes. But also the amount of wind shear has to be low. They can only form under barotropic conditions. If warm water masses expand further North or South, they will reach areas with strong winds aloft. In these areas the formation of hurricanes is prevented. This point is illustrated by the Caribbean: Water temperatures are sufficient for the formation of hurricanes all year, but only in late summer and autumn low shear conditions prevail enabling the formation of hurricanes.
More recent publications point in the same direction. They are summarized on a website of the Geophysics Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. In an article by Thomas R. Knutson and Robert E. Tuleya (ref. 4) much more robust and comprehensive model study was made which resulted in an expected increase of 6% in maximum wind velocity, a increase of 14% in central pressure fall and an increase of 18% in rainfall near the core of hurricanes.
On the other hand: Up to now no real trend in hurricane strength and occurrence has been observed in The Atlantic and the Caribbean. The same holds for the Pacific. An apparent trend upwards in the earlier records can be explained by under-reporting in the satellite-less era. Some of the smaller storms were missed altogether and the moment of maximum intensity (that is how they are rated) was also missed in many cases. In the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean the records from the start of air reconnessance (1944) are reasonably reliable. In the Pacific this is the case from about 1965 - 1970 onwards.
Summarizing: Up to now no upwards trend in strength and/or occurrence in hurricane activity has been observed. However: Based on model studies quoted above the intensity of hurricanes is expected to increase. On the other hand: Their occurrence is not expected to increase.
A recent publication by Holland and Webster (ref. 5) points in the direction of an increase in hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin. It should however be stressed that this results - up to now - only holds for this part of the tropics.
Damage done by hurricanes
One final remark on this subject: The escalation of damage done by hurricanes can be attributed to the fact that much more people live on dangerous ground today. Over 16 million people live in Florida. In 1961 a hurricane (Hattie, like Mitch in 1998 a cat. V storm!) hit Belize and Honduras with torrential rains. It was, however, no disaster like in 1998. In Honduras it was the change in land use which turned a major inconvenience in 1961 into an all out disaster in 1998.
1: Thomas R. Knutson, Robert E. Tuleya and Yashio Kurihara
2: T.R. Knutson and R.E. Tuleya
3: A. HendersonSellers, H. Zhang, G. Berz, K. Emanuel, W. Gray,
C. Landsea, G. Holland, J. Lighthill, S.L. Shieh, P. Webster and
4: T.R. Knutson and R.E. Tuleya
5: Greg J. Holland and Peter J. Webster
"Heightened tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic:natural variability or climate trend?"
Atlantic Hurricane Data by Year
A graph of some Atlantic hurricane data of the period 1944-2012. Below the Saffir-Simpson scale:
Type Category Pressure Winds Surge mb knts mph ft Depression TD ------- < 34 < 39 ----- Tropical Storm TS ------- 34- 63 39- 73 ----- Hurricane 1 > 980 64- 82 74- 95 4- 5 Hurricane 2 965-980 83- 95 96-110 6- 8 Hurricane 3 945-965 96-112 111-130 9-12 Hurricane 4 920-945 113-134 131-155 13-18 Hurricane 5 < 920 > 134 > 155 > 18
From this the conclusion can be drawn that, up to now, no trend in hurricane
actvity, in terms of occurence, can be observed. It is however striking that
from the second half of the 90-ties on there has been quite some activity
in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Whether this is the harbinger of more intense
hurricanes due to global warming, or caused by a multidecadal cycle is still
an open question. (See below.)
The year 2005 might be a once in a lifetime event. It was an incredible season, which ended with 'Zeta' at the end of the year (30/12!).
Another way of looking at this subject is considering the number of major (catagory 3 or above) landfalling hurricanes in the US. These data do not suffer from the drawback of missing smaller storms or under rating due to missing of the moment of maximum intensity (for the older data). Their strength at the moment of landfall is precisely known.
This gives rise to the following overview:
period Number of major landfalling hurricanes Cat. 3 Cat. 4 Cat.5 Total 1891 - 1900 5 1 6 1901 - 1910 5 1 6 1911 - 1920 3 2 5 1921 - 1930 3 2 5 1931 - 1940 6 1 1 8 1941 - 1950 9 1 10 1951 - 1960 5 3 8 1961 - 1970 4 1 1 6 1971 - 1980 4 4 1981 - 1990 3 1 4 1991 - 2000 3 1 4 2001 - 2010 4 3 7No clear upward trend can be observed.
One more graph including some older data is shown below. However, it should be borne in mind that these data (definitely before the 1920-ties) are (much) less accurate in terms of hurricane strength.
How much energy is transferred by Hurricanes?
An interesting question is: How much energy is transferred by Hurricanes?
It is well known that hurricanes mix warm surface waters with cooler water within the
thermocline, leaving colder wakes that over a period of weeks are restored to normal
conditions by mixing and reheating by the sun. This restoration is associated with net
heating of the oceans to some depth. This implies a net export of heat from the regions
affected by the storms.
The conclusion from this with respect to the ideas of "taming" hurricanes is that caution should be exercised when considering this. 1.4 1015 Watt is substantial if one bears in mind that the net solar energy flow towards the Earth is 120 1015 Watt!
Ref: K Emanuel,
Some notes on the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation
When considering the question whether there is a link between global warming and hurricane formation the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) is one of the complicating factors.
How does it work?
The tropical part of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean basin are enjoying high sea surface temperatures. Due to this - in average - the tropical storm activity is high. It also results in ample rainfall, making the ocean water less salty. When this less salty water reaches the Arctic it leads to a weakening of the gulfstream. In its turn this causes some cooling, less tropical storm activity, and less rain. Due to this the ocean becomes more salty and finally the gulfstream becomes stronger again. This leads to higher temperatures. The circle is closed.
The picture below shows this oscillation:
The increased hurricane activity after 1995 fits quite nicely in this overall picture.
However, one may raise some doubt to this story when one considers the hurricane statistics more closely. In the table below it is shown. 'TS' stands for the number of tropical storms in the considered decade, '1' for the number of category 1 hurricanes, etc. up to and including 5. 'Katrina', 'Rita' and 'Wilma' were the most recent category 5 hurricanes.
The jump after 1995 is now much more striking. The question arises whether this is still part of the AMO pattern, or that it is the harbinger of a change in the tropical storm climate in the Atlantic and Caribbean basin. The coming 10 years will learn us more ...
Ref: Richard Kerr, 'Atlantic Climate Pacemaker for Millennia Past, Decades Hence?',
Some on links between warmer sea water and more intense hurricanes
Recently some more publications on the intensification of hurricanes due to higher sea surface temperatures have appeared in the open literature. In a publication by Greg Holland, Judith Curry en Hai-Ru Chang it is stated that there is no increase in the number of tropical storms. However, there is increasingly stronger evidence that the number of severe storms – 4/5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale – is rising.
This is a total over the whole world, so the effects of oscillations like the 'Multidecale Atlantic Oscillation' are removed / averaged out from the statistics. One objection remains: The peroid, 35 years, is rather short.
Also one should caution a bit on the way of splitting up the period. If one would choose 10 year periods in this picture it would be much less clear in case of the East Pacific.
On the other hand, a recent publication in Science (see references below) made the claim of a link between higher sea surface temperatures and more intense hurricanes more robust.
• SCIENCE NEWS, March 17th, 2006
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