Forecasting Change: How global warming, rising sea levels impact future hurricane seasons

NHC Director Ken Graham addresses what’s in store for storm season

These last few years in the Atlantic have proven more active than usual when it comes to the number of powerful hurricanes making landfall, according to storm experts.

News 6 chief meteorologist Tom Sorrells sat down with Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, to kick off the conversation about how the changing climate and the planet’s recent storm streak might impact future hurricane seasons.

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We’re coming up on seven straight seasons of above average production of hurricanes by the atmosphere in the Earth. So are we ever going to get back to normal?


Take this in. We’ve had more (Category) 4 and 5 landfalls in the United States from 2017 to 2021 that we did from 1963 to 2016.




It’s been busy. It’s been incredibly active. So if you look at it, eventually we’ll have some season that that gets averaged or maybe below with time, but right now we’re just (in) an incredibly active period of time.


What do you think about when it comes to the changing climate we’re all living through?


90% of fatalities in these tropical systems (come) from the water. So what’s going to happen in the future with it, with a, a warmer climate? Well, one, your sea level is going to come up. So, you know, you’ve talked about these hurricanes that produce storm surge, you can see not just higher amounts of storm surge, but further inland, so further in your rivers and further inland, associated with that, that storm surge. The other part is the rainfall. It’s pure physics. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. So the rainfall rates, we’re seeing an increase in some of those rainfall rates. You’re gonna see heavy rain, not just on the coast, but well inland.


So in your opinion, it’s not necessarily about an increase in wind speed, or like, stronger storms?


It’s not even... a factor of the number of storms. We’re naming more, we see more, we got better tools, we got satellites, we got aircraft that, you know, see things that we would (not) have seen 20 or 30 years ago.

Other storm experts also contributed to the conversation.

“There’s some question about... storms are slowing down. That’s, I think, still an open question. Obviously, if storms were to slow down, that would tend to mean generally more rainfall (too) because the storm is moving slower over your particular area,” said Dr. Phil Klotzbach, Ph.D., a tropical weather and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. “While the Atlantic has hurricane numbers (that) have gone up since 1990, globally, they’ve actually gone down because the Pacific has gone down quite a bit. And the Pacific generally... generates many more storms in an average year.”

But Jamie Rome, deputy director with the National Hurricane Center, argued that people often get hung up on numbers and arguments revolving around what causes the storm without focusing on its impact.

“If the globe is warming, and it is, it’s going to retain more moisture, right? It’s going to hold it better. And then a hurricane is going to come and extract it all. So it means it’s going to rain. It’s going to rain harder in future hurricanes. You also don’t need me to tell you that the sea level is rising. You can see it, we can all see it,” Rome said. “We go to the coast, the coastline’s changing, sea levels rising—that is a higher base or foundation upon which future hurricanes will have to push storm surge. So the storm surge will be deeper and go farther inland. So whether the numbers are increasing or not, the storms that are forming are packing a bigger punch.”

John Cangialosi, NHC senior hurricane specialist, said as hurricane impacts grow worse, cities along the coastline should prepare.

“And many cities are (preparing), you know, I’m from New York, they’re preparing especially after Sandy, they’re building better sea walls. Houston is doing it, Miami is doing it. So you know, there’s a lot occurring in a lot of the major metropolitan areas that are vulnerable to this, which is great to see,” Cangialosi said.

About the Authors:

Tom Sorrells is News 6's Emmy award winning chief meteorologist. He pinpoints storms across Central Florida to keep residents safe from dangerous weather conditions.