Is climate change having an effect on hurricanes?


ORLANDO, Fla. – A lot of people are asking if global warming is affecting hurricanes. The answer is yes, but it is not as intuitive an answer as you might think. 

Researchers have been studying the warming climate's impact on tropical cyclones, and while there is still more research that needs to be done, it appears that the future may be one of fewer but stronger hurricanes. Is that good or bad news? We'll leave that for you to chew on, but here's what we do know.

Hurricanes form in areas of very warm (greater than 80 degrees) ocean water and low wind shear aloft.  As the planet warms, our oceans are getting warmer. It is important to remember that warmer ocean water means more water evaporating into the air above. This atmospheric humidity is what storms turn into precipitation. So the warming oceans are having a dual effect on hurricanes, neither of which is news we want to hear. 

Hurricanes forming over warmer waters in otherwise favorable conditions have greater fuel to grow on. The hotter water is like throwing gasoline onto a fire. So, our future is likely to be one in which hurricanes (even if there are fewer of them) will be more intense. Furthermore, the increased atmospheric humidity will likely increase the rain amounts with these storms. 

Are you a disbeliever? Then look no further than Hurricane Harvey, which dropped such incredible rainfall amounts that the National Weather Service (and TV meteorologists on weather graphics computers) had to add colors to our rainfall totals maps to show the extreme totals. Our prior color table legends didn't go as high as the amounts received in Harvey. Researchers have already attributed some of Harvey's record-breaking rainfall directly to the warming climate.

And here's another thing to consider: As our oceans warm, the water expands. This, combined with melting Arctic ice, is causing sea levels to rise. You don't need to be a scientist to understand that higher sea levels mean a higher storm surge when a hurricane hits. Those who live along the coast know all about this just with what's been happening to tides in recent years. King tides are getting higher and cause routine flooding in some areas. Now, take that higher king tide and add a 120 mph wind blowing toward shore, and inland places that have never experienced a storm surge in the past will in the future. 

And don't forget that a farther push inland of ocean salt water is devastating to inland vegetation that depends upon fresh water for its existence.

So, while our future may be one of fewer hurricanes, those that do develop will likely be more intense.  And that's vitally important news to us here in the Sunshine State.

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