Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:18 PM GMT on April 08, 2013
Watch out, Europe. Dangerous part-hurricane, part extratropical hybrid storms like Hurricane Sandy of 2012 are expected to be an increasing threat for Western Europe by the end of the century due to global warming, said a team of scientists led by Reindert J. Haarsma of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. In a paper called "More hurricanes to hit Western Europe due to global warming", published in April 2013 in Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers describe the results from runs of a high-resolution (25 km grid spacing) climate model based on the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) numerical weather prediction model. The model predicts that the breeding ground for Atlantic hurricanes will shift approximately 700 miles eastwards as the oceans warm this century. Hurricanes which form farther to the east can spend more time over warm tropical waters before turning north and northeast towards Europe, increasing the odds that these storms will have hurricane-force winds upon arrival in Europe. The model showed that wind shear will change little in the region over the coming decades, resulting in a large increase in storms with hurricane-force winds affecting Western Europe. Most of the these storms will not be tropical hurricanes upon arrival in Europe, but will be former hurricanes that have transitioned to extratropical storms. However, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy of 2012, these hybrid storms can be extremely dangerous. Summed over Norway, the North Sea, and the Gulf of Biscay, the model found that the number of hurricane-force storms in August - October increased from 2 to 13 over the 21st century, with almost all future West European hurricane-force storms predicted to originate as hurricanes or tropical storms in the tropics by 2100. The researchers conclude that "tropical cyclones will increase the probability of present-day extreme events over the North Sea and the Gulf of Biscay with a factor of 5 and 25 respectively, with far reaching consequences especially for coastal safety."
Figure 1. Hurricane Sandy at 10:10 am EDT October 28, 2012. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.
Europe's hurricane history
Only once since accurate records began in 1851 has an actual hurricane with full tropical characteristics hit Europe. This happened on September 16, 1961, when Category 1 Hurricane Debbie hit northwestern Ireland. Wind gusts reached 106 mph at Ballykelly and 104 mph at Tiree and Snaefill, and coastal radio stations reported the airwaves were jammed with calls for help from small ships and fishing craft. Eleven people were killed and 50 injured in the storm. The only other tropical cyclone recorded to have hit Europe since 1851 was Hurricane Vince of 2005, which hit southern Spain as a tropical depression on October 11, 2005. Historical documents also suggest a hurricane hit Spain on October 29, 1842.
Figure 2. Hurricane Debbie of 1961 was the only fully tropical hurricane ever recorded to hit Europe.
Britain's history of ex-hurricane strikes
Hurricanes that transition to powerful extratropical storms hit the British Isles several times per decade, on average. In 2011, Hurricane Katia brushed by Newfoundland, made the transition from a tropical system to a powerful extratropical storm, and maintained strong winds of 50 - 65 mph as it crossed the Atlantic. Ex-Katia hit northern Scotland on September 12, 2011. Glen Ogle, Scotland, at an elevation of 1500 feet (546 meters), received sustained winds of 60 mph, gusting to 86 mph. Cairngorm, in the Scottish Highlands at an elevation of 4085 feet, reported sustained winds of 67 mph. With the trees in full leaf, tree damage was much higher than a winter or springtime storm of similar ferocity would have caused. One person was killed by a falling tree, and heavy tree damage and numerous power failures were reported throughout Britain. Other gusts experienced in Britain included 76 mph at Edinburgh Blackford Hill, 75 mph at Capel Curig in Wales, 72 mph at Glasgow Bishopton, and 71 mph at Loftus, North Yorkshire.
Figure 3. Image of Hurricane Katia taken from the International Space Station at 15 GMT September 9, 2011, by astronaut Ron Garan. At the time, Katia was a Category 1 hurricane with 85 mph winds. Long Island, New York is visible at the lower left.
Figure 4. Surface wind estimate from the Windsat satellite at 4:04 am EDT on Monday, September 12, 2011. The center of Extratropical Storm Katia is marked by an "L", and winds in excess of 50 knots (58 mph, purple triangles) were occurring to the southwest of the center, near the west coast of Ireland. Image credit: NOAA.
As reported by UK Met Office forecaster John Hammond in a post on the BBC 23 degrees blog, Britain has been affected at least eight times in the past twenty years by extratropical storms that were once tropical storms or hurricanes. Before Katia of 2011, the most recent such storm was Hurricane Bill of 2009, which hit Ireland as an extratropical storm on August 25 with sustained winds of 45 mph. Bill was a Category 4 hurricane northeast of the Lesser Antilles five days prior. In 2006, a record three extratropical storms that had once been tropical cyclones hit Britain:
Extratropical Storm Alberto, which had been a strong tropical storm that hit the Florida Panhandle, hit northern Ireland and Scotland as an extratropical storm with 35 mph winds.
Extratropical Storm Gordon hit Ireland on September 21, 2006, with sustained winds of 65 mph. Gordon brought record warm temperatures as tropical air pushed north across the UK, and also strong winds that brought down power lines in Northern Ireland. Wind gusts to 60 mph (97 km/h) occurred in the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast, and 81 mph (130 km/h) on the mainland.
Extratropical Storm Helene hit Northwestern Ireland on September 27, 2006, with sustained winds of 45 mph.
Figure 5. Path of Hurricane Lili of 1996, which caused $420 million in damage to the U.K. as an extratropical storm.
Other post-tropical cyclones that have the U.K. in the past twenty years include Hurricanes Isaac and Leslie of 2000, Hurricane Karl of 1998, and Hurricane Lili of 1996. The most severe of these storms was Extratropical Storm Lili, which hit Ireland on October 28, 1996, with sustained winds of 65 mph. Lili caused $420 million in damage (2011 dollars) in the U.K. According to Wikipedia, Lili produced a 92 mph (148 km/h) gust at Swansea, South Wales, while bringing a 4' (1.2 meter) storm surge that inundated the River Thames. In Somerset, 500 holiday cottages were severely damaged. A U.S. oil drilling platform, under tow in the North Sea, broke loose during the storm and nearly ran aground at Peterhead. On the Isle of Wight, a sailing boat was beached at Chale Bay; luckily all five occupants were rescued. It was the most damaging storm to have struck the United Kingdom since the Great Storm of 1987, which killed 22 and did $660 million in damage (1996 dollars.) However, Lili also broke a four-month drought over southwest England.
All but one of these storms hit during the peak part of hurricane season, mid-August - late October. The only exception was Ex-Tropical Storm Alberto of 2006, which hit Britain in June.
Figure 6. Hybrid subtropical storm of October 8, 1996, off the coast of Italy. According to Reale and Atlas (2001), the storm had characteristics similar to a hurricane, but formed over cool waters of 21.5°C (71°F.) They reported that "The maximum damage due to wind occurred over the Aeolian Islands, at 38.5°N, 15°E, to the northeast of Sicily: assistance for disaster relief was required. Unfortunately, no weather station data were available, but the media reported sheds, roofs and harbor devices destroyed, and houses and electric lines damaged, due to 'extremely strong westerly wind.' The perfect agreement between the observations at Ustica, the storm scale, the eye-like feature position and the damages over the Aeolian Island reasonably suggest that the hurricane-level intensity of 32 m/s (72 mph) was reached over the Aeolian Islands." A similar hybrid low affected Algeria on 9 - 10 November 2001. This storm produced upwards of 270 mm (10.6") of rain, winds of 33 m/s (74 mph), and killed 737 people near Algiers, mostly from flooding and mud slides. Image credit: Dundee satellite receiving station.
Hurricanes in the Mediterranean Sea?
The Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa has experienced several damaging hybrid subtropical storms in recent decades, but has never experienced a fully tropical hurricane in recorded history. However, global warming may cause the Mediterranean to start spawning hurricanes by 2100, according to a 2007 study by a research team led by Miguel Angel Gaertner of the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Toledo, Spain. They ran nine different climate models with resolutions of about 50 km and found that some (but not all) of the models simulated hurricanes in the Mediterranean in September by the end of the century, when ocean temperature could increase by 3°C, reaching 30°C.
Though the Mediterranean may start seeing hurricanes by the end of the century, these storms should be rare and relatively short-lived for three reasons:
1) The Mediterranean is quite far north and is subject to strong wind shear from jet stream activity.
2) The waters are shallow, and have relatively low heat content. There is no deep warm water current like the Gulf Stream.
3) The Mediterranean has a lot of large islands and peninsulas poking into it, increasing the chances that a tropical storm would weaken when it encountered land.
Gaertner, M. A., D. Jacob, V. Gil, M. Dominguez, E. Padorno, E. Sanchez, and M. Castro (2007), Tropical cyclones over the Mediterranean Sea in climate change simulations, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L14711, doi:10.1029/2007GL029977.
Haarsma et al., 2013, More hurricanes to hit Western Europe due to global warming, Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1002/grl.50360
Reale, O., and R. Atlas. 2001: Tropical Cyclone-Like Vortices in the Extratropics: Observational Evidence and Synoptic Analysis, Weather and Forecasting, 16, No. 1, pp. 7-34.
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