Global Climate Change and its Potential Connection to Hurricane Activity (cited research)

Because of recent North Atlantic Hurricane Season activity…many people have questioned whether hurricanes are becoming stronger and more numerous because of climate change. In the social media universe, I’ve seen many opinionated debates within the general public, as well as meteorologists and perhaps a few sprinkling of climatologist opinions here and there. Not to mention, interesting statements from non-climate scientists. What I have not seen much, however, is any discussion of peer-reviewed research on the topic. There’s so much knowledge being gathered every year by scientists trying to answer important questions about our past, present and future. How climate change will impact regional weather and climates is one of the most important questions because of potential impacts to people, agriculture and natural resources.

I decided to do a (very brief) search of literature on science’s current understanding of climate change as it relates to tropical cyclones. I looked into both the potential connection of global warming to these events in the current climate (attribution), as well as projections for these events based on the “business-as-usual” scenario for carbon dioxide emissions, which is a high emissions scenario and steady increase in CO2 concentration. Research cited are just a sampling of what’s out there and what I looked over. Here are some themes I found interesting (takeaway statements at the end):

Climate models* appear to show a signal toward more intense (Category 4-5 Saffir-Simpson) tropical cyclones overall in the world by the latter half of the 21st century. However, there is also a potential for a downward trend in cyclone numbers in many basins (see #1-4).

The decrease in overall cyclone numbers by the second half of the century is thought to be a product of increasing vertical wind shear over tropical oceans limiting weaker storms. However, many researchers expect there to be a significant upward trend in more intense storms (Category 4-5) as the oceans continue to warm and tropical cyclone formation and track density moves poleward. So formerly less favorable sub-regions of basins may see an overall increase in cyclone activity (with more storms which will be stronger than before in those regions) and in the increasingly less hospitable regions (over the long term), storms which do form when conditions are favorable on short time scales may see cyclones which are also more intense than in years past.

As for historical conditions leading to the present…there does not appear to be a conclusive signature by global warming on tropical cyclone intensity outside of natural variability on a global scale (3-4). However, some regional signals related to frequency changes are being actively studied. 

There is some suggestion (4) based on modeling past climate change to the present time that warming (which would enhance the potential intensity for hurricanes) has been muted by the industrial production of aerosols (particulates like sulfates and nitrates), which actually reflect sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface. However, as warming continues into mid-century, its effect of trapping heat will begin to significantly exceed aerosol cooling effects leading to the more pronounced impacts on cyclone intensity stated earlier (unless CO2 emissions are significantly reduced soon). So while global warming is happening in the background, hurricane potential intensity as we currently witness it is likely still being dominated by natural cycles. (For more on climate change research into tropical cyclones, you can also see this webinar done by climate change researcher Dr. Kerry Emanuel for Climate Central).

With that said, some researchers see signs of a global warming signature associated with recent increased tropical cyclone *frequency* in sub-regions of basins. These include the far eastern portion of the North Atlantic Basin (4), close to the East Asian Coast (5), and a portion of the North-Central Pacific Basin (6). Research is still ongoing on global warming’s past and future influence on activity in individual tropical cyclone basins.

Meanwhile, there is evidence of other impacts related to tropical cyclones (and other significant weather phenomena) and climate change. These include higher rainfall rates (7) and higher storm surge related to sea-level rise from the melting polar ice sheets and thermal expansion of the oceans (8). In addition, there is some scientific evidence that tropical cyclones in recent decades have begun to intensify more rapidly because of increased ocean warming (9). And while not completely clear yet whether it is fully tied to climate change, it is known that the observed North Atlantic Power Dissipation Index (PDI) has increased significantly since the mid-1970s (10; positively correlated to sea surface temperatures) and globally, the strongest tropical cyclones in respective basins have grown stronger since 1981 (Elsner et al, 2008…not included here). Note that scientific critics point out the use of observational data with differences in quality – satellite intensity estimates and reconnaissance flights (or lack of them) – over recent decades could put some uncertainty in these results.

My thoughts? Although inconclusive, possible intensity signals may be a hint of the projected effects of climate change as PDI and high-end cyclone intensity are highly correlated to sea surface temperatures. SSTs are increasing from global warming and this would connect with what climate models suggest of future tropical cyclone activity, if these historical trends are, in fact partially related to climate change.

The Takeaways:

  1. Tropical cyclone intensity at the highest end of the scale appears likely to increase through the 21st century because of climate change, especially if human civilization does not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions soon.
  2. While a current climate change signal to intensity is difficult to detect and still a matter of debate, storms in recent decades appear to be intensifying faster, are capable of producing more extreme precipitation events and higher storm surges because of rising sea levels caused by ice sheet melting and thermal ocean expansion. There also appears to be some detectable changes in frequency of storms within individual basins which may locally enhance risk.
  3. Regardless of the exact changes in frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, the risks to individuals and society because of climate change will increase into the coming decades. It will be important for people and governments to make decisions (beyond greenhouse gas emissions) related to property, coastal land use and emergency management policy to mitigate increasing tropical cyclone hazards, particularly from water (storm surge/inland flooding).

Note: It is of EXTREME importance that those with a desire to communicate climate change issues try to inform our fellow citizens to the best of our ability. Climate change is one of the important issues facing our world (the impact on the global food supply and human health may be actually of greatest importance, but rarely discussed as those aren’t “sexy” topics…). People have their thoughts on the issue based on experiences, politics, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. However, at the end of the day, we must inform and connect what we know to people’s concerns and allow people to decide as they may. Without censorship (“We can’t discuss climate change right now!”) or nonsensical exaggerations (“So many hurricanes, it’s a new era of superstorms!”). Stay informed (give informed opinions) and tell people why they should care as it relates to their lives. Like everything else we should communicate to the concerns of people. Considering most Americans are now, in fact, concerned about climate change, there’s really NO excuse not to discuss the issue in a serious, informed manner if we have the interest to discuss it at all.


Additional Note: *-Climate models are not weather forecast models. They do not forecast the atmosphere using initial conditions, but take a climate state (for example, our current climate) and adjust “forcings” on the climate system (carbon dioxide emissions for example). The effect of these changes to “boundary conditions” over time are interpreted for land, sea, the cryosphere and (for Earth System models), the biosphere. Global climate is based on thermodynamic and hydrologic balances which will look for equilibrium when changes to a part of the system are applied. (For more on climate models you can see this webinar by Research Meteorologist Keith Dixon of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory for Climate Central).

References (links are PDFs):

#1 – Bell et al. (2013)

#2 – Murakami et al. (2011)

#3 – Wang and Wu. (2013)

#4 –  Sobel et al. (2016)

#5 – Cheng-lin et al. (2016)

#6 – Murakami et al. (2015)

#7 – Knutson et al. (2013)

#8 – Jevrejeva et al. (2016)

#9 – Kishtawal et al. (2012)

#10 – Emanual (2005)

—Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

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Update on Hurricane Maria (2:30 pm EDT). High winds and flooding rains impacting Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria is beginning to emerge from the island of Puerto Rico after the center made landfall 8 1/2 hrs ago as a Category 4 storm with max winds of 155 mph (Cat 5 is 156+ so catastrophic wind speeds occurred). 

The hurricane is now a Category 3 storm with 115 mph sustained winds and gusts over 130 mph near the center. Damaging winds and torrential flooding rains will continue for the rest of the afternoon as the system continues to push out into open ocean water.


Most computer models indicate the system should remain offshore the United States as it moves north in a weakness in the upper level higher pressure field caused by the presence of Tropical Storm Jose offshore the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England.

 
The crucial timing to be rid of Maria forever will be the approach of a significant upper level trough of low pressure from the Midwest midweek next week to “kick” the dying hurricane out to sea. Most models show this connection keeping the system offshore being, however there is higher variability in the track after Monday which could bring the system closer to shore than expected. Currently, I feel direct impacts…the tropical storm force wind field and significant rain bands…will likely (66%+ probability) stay offshore. But potential variability makes the situation worth watching closely. 

Regardless, high surf and rip currents (currents which pull water offshore and make swimming dangerous) are likely by early next week. The system will also be weaker offshore the East Coast thanks to less intense sea surface temperatures and increasing vertical wind shear from mid-latitude winds.

In the meantime, direct impacts from a Cat 3-4 storm are likely for north coast of the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southern Bahamas. Hurricane warnings are in effect for all these areas. 

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Update on Hurricane Maria (9:25 am EDT). Catastrophic flash flood/violent wind event ongoing.

Maria made landfall as a powerful Category 4 storm near Yabucoa, PR with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph and minimum central pressure of 917 millibars (at 6:35 am EDT). The hurricane continues to move across the island delivering destructive hurricane force winds and torrential amounts of rain leading to massive flash flooding (including 5-7 inch/hr rainfall rates).

The storm currently has max winds of 145 mph. 

River gauges across PR are rising incredibly fast from the high rainfall rates:


Radar near time of landfall (currently offline):

Update on Hurricane Maria (6:30 am EDT)

#Maria is making landfall in eastern Puerto Rico as a Category 4 Hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph. Gusts of 160+ are likely in progress over northeast coast of PR. Catastrophic weather conditions will continue to spread across the island over the next couple of hours. 

Terrible situation for the 3.5 million people hunkering down this morning. 

PR Radar failed just before 6 am EDT. More inbound winds of 155 mph or higher as eyewall moved over radar site (which is in elevated terrain and winds likely much stronger).

Update on Hurricane Maria (1:30 am EDT)

The hurricane…which is currently undergoing an eyewall replacement cycle with a double eyewall structure…is moving just to the southwest of St. Croix. Wind gusts up to 140 mph have been reported on the western edge of the island just miles from the inner eyewall. The outer eyewall brought initial gusts over 100 mph to the island as it came ashore in the last hour and a half.

The center is still expected to make landfall as a Category 5 storm after day break in southeastern Puerto Rico.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Hurricane Maria continues to intensify this evening as it makes approach to USVI and Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria…after devastating the island nation of Dominica with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph and gusts over 190 mph…is now threatening the highly populated US territory of Puerto Rico and also the US Virgin Islands as a Category 5 hurricane. Maximum sustained winds are near 175 mph at 8 pm EDT and the hurricane continues to intensify. It is now the 9th most intense hurricane on record by minimum central pressure (906 millibars as extrapolated by the USAF Reserve Hurricane Hunters; more than 100 mb lower than Earth’s average sea level pressure). For comparison, the most intense hurricane on record in the North Atlantic was 2005 Hurricane Wilma (882 mb) and 2005 Hurricane Katrina by comparison had a minimum central Pressure of 902 mb at its peak with winds of 175 mph (ranked 7th by pressure). There are signs the hurricane is continuing to intensify. The next hurricane hunter plane will arrive in the storm by 10:30 pm EDT.

meso2_09_20170920002659
Mid-level water vapor imagery by the GOES 16 satellite (non-operational, in testing). It shows the very powerful circulation of Maria and the very dry/warm eye in the center (image at 8:27 pm EDT).

As of now, there is absolutely NOTHING to stop the power of the storm, except internal, inner core processes (like an eyewall replacement cycle). The waters under Maria are 1-1.5 degrees C (~2-3 degrees F) above normal and the oceanic heat content (includes warmth with depth) and resulting tropical cyclone heat potential is MUCH above normal along the track.

235857_3day_cone_no_line_and_wind
5-day Track forecast for Maria (NHC).

The eye will pass near or over the island of Saint Croix late tonight and make landfall in Eastern Puerto Rico tomorrow morning. Both landfalls are expected at Category 5 intensity with gusts over 185 mph in the inner core (particularly northern eyewall). In addition to the violent winds, rainfall of 12-18+ inches are possible over the USVI and Puerto Rico, along with landslides in the mountainous terrain, where winds may also be even more violent than near sea-level.

Needless to say, this is a truly horrific situation evolving for a territory of 3.5 million people; and a territory still recovering from much weaker hurricane impacts from Irma two weeks ago. USVI such significant damage from Irma as well.

I will an update on Maria later this evening as new data comes in.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Damage from Hurricane Irma in the US Virgin Islands

These photos are from FEMA who are assessing the significant damage in the USVI of St. Thomas. Irma moved near the USVI as a Category 5 Hurricane (max winds 185 mph) while it also caused violent impacts to the British Virgin Islands.

Before…

After…

The defoliation of many of these Caribbean is significant. Similar views can be seen in Barbuda, St. Martin, Turks and Caicos and of course the southern Florida Keys. In addition, Barbuda has been completely evacuated of its population of 1600 until later recovery efforts. This is the first time in 300 years that the island has not had a permanent population.

And now a new cyclone…Tropical Storm Maria… is threatening to move through the Leeward Is. and toward Puerto Rico as a hurricane this week. 


And there’s also Hurricane Jose, which is potentially eying coastal New England within the historic track error for the center of circulation. Regardless, high surf and dangerous rip currents will impact much of the mid-Atlantic and New England to Atlantic Canada this week. As the system moves north, it will also grow in size, tropical storm force winds may impact coastal Long Island to Massachusetts,  particularly if the system moves to the left of the current forecast.

Rough year for a lot of people this hurricane season. Hopefully less so from here on out while recovery efforts continue.