It’s no surprise that the climate crisis is fueling more intense weather, but new research shows how warming ocean temperatures are boosting tropical storms, causing hurricanes to become bigger and stronger at faster rates. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that hurricanes that form in the Atlantic Ocean are now twice as likely to grow from a small storm to a strong Category 3 hurricane in just a day.
Andra Garner, an assistant professor of environmental science at Rowan University and the paper’s author, studied tropical storms that formed in the Atlantic Ocean from 2001 to 2020. Data showed that 8.1% of these storms upgraded from a Category 1 to a Category 3 hurricane or stronger in 24 hours. She compared that to storms that formed from 1971 to 2000, where only 3.2% of storms strengthened that quickly. The study noted that the increase in quickly strengthening storms occurred alongside rising ocean temperatures, which are known to fuel tropical storms.
Stronger storms of course mean greater damage to infrastructure and displacement of coastal communities, but faster-intensifying storms also make it harder for people to adequately prepare or evacuate.
“The rapid intensification of TCs [tropical cyclones] in a warmer climate is particularly concerning, given that such events can be difficult to forecast and predict, leading to potentially escalated damages as well as difficulties when communicating the approaching hazard to coastal residents who may be in the TC’s path,” the study reads.
We’ve seen several hurricanes get bigger in alarmingly short periods of time these past few years. Hurricane Maria formed in September 2017 and intensified from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5 in less than 24 hours. It slammed into Puerto Rico with maximum sustained winds of about 155 miles per hour. And last month, Hurricane Lee formed and was barely a hurricane, but quickly grew to a Category 5 in a day.
There are other factors involved, including whether we’re in an El Niño or La Niña year. Remember how we ran through storm names so quickly that we had to speedrace through the Greek alphabet in 2020? That was a La Niña year. This year is an El Niño formation year, which means fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic and more in the Pacific. But because ocean temperatures have been so warm this year, the National Oceanic and Administrative Administration had to upgrade its original forecast for hurricane season from “near-normal” to “above average.” This year was expected to see 12 to 17 named storms; the update increases that prediction to an expectation of 14 to 21 named storms.
“Forecasters believe that current ocean and atmospheric conditions, such as record-warm Atlantic sea surface temperatures, are likely to counterbalance the usually limiting atmospheric conditions associated with the ongoing El Nino event,” NOAA explained in its statement.
There is a solution: mitigating climate change by phasing out oil and gas infrastructure to stop the planet from becoming even warmer. “One of the messages from this work is that there is an urgency,” Garner said in a statement. “If we don’t make some pretty big changes and rapidly move away from fossil fuels, this is something we can expect to see worsen in the future.”
Want more climate and environment stories? Check out Earther’s guides to decarbonizing your home, divesting from fossil fuels, packing a disaster go bag, and overcoming climate dread. And don’t miss our coverage of the latest IEA report on clean energy, the future of carbon dioxide removal, and the invasive plants you should rip to shreds.
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