Hurricanes and Climate Change: Huge Dangers, Huge Unknowns

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 9:57 AM GMT on August 05, 2013

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Hurricane Sandy's enormous $65 billion price tag put that great storm in third place for the most expensive weather-related disaster in U.S. (and world) history, and six of the ten most expensive U.S. weather-related disasters since 1980 have been hurricanes. Thus, how the strongest hurricanes may be affected due a changing climate is a topic of critical concern. Since hurricanes are heat engines that extract heat energy from the oceans to power themselves, hurricane scientists are confident that the very strongest storms will get stronger by the end of the century, when Earth's land and ocean temperatures are expected to warm 2 - 3°C, to levels unmatched since the Eemian Era, 115,000 years ago. Computer modeling work consistently indicates that greenhouse warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift towards stronger storms, with intensity increases of 2–11% by 2100. But hurricanes are fussy creations, and are sensitive to wind shear and dry air. Although the strongest storms should get stronger when "perfect storm" conditions are present, these "perfect storm" conditions may become less frequent in the future, due to the presence of higher wind shear, altered atmospheric circulation patterns, or more dry air at mid levels of the atmosphere. Indeed, the climate models used to formulate the 2007 IPCC report suggested that we might see the strongest hurricanes getting stronger, but a decrease in the total number of hurricanes in the Atlantic (and worldwide) later this century. However, the latest set of models used to formulate the 2013 IPCC report left open the possibility that we might see in increase in the total number of hurricanes, and and increase in their intensity. Given the conflicting model results, we really don't know how global warming will affect the number of hurricanes and their intensity, but we run the risk of making one of humanity's greatest scourges worse.


Figure 1. The list of most expensive U.S. weather-related disasters since 1980 is dominated by hurricanes.

Climate models and hurricane frequency
The database we have on historical hurricanes does not extend far enough into the past and is not of high enough quality to make many judgements on how human-caused climate change may be affecting these great storms. A landmark 2010 review paper, "Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change", authored by ten top hurricane scientists concluded that the U.S. has not seen any long-term increase in landfalling tropical storms and hurricanes, and that "it remains uncertain whether past changes in tropical cyclone activity have exceeded the variability expected from natural causes" (tropical cyclone is the generic term which encompasses tropical depressions, tropical storms, hurricanes, and typhoons.) Based in part on modeling studies using climate models run for the 2007 IPCC report, the scientists concluded that "it is likely that global mean tropical cyclone frequency will either decrease or remain unchanged owing to greenhouse warming." For example, one of the modeling studies the review paper quoted, Knutson et al. (2008), "Simulated reduction in Atlantic hurricane frequency under twenty-first-century warming conditions", projected a decrease in Atlantic tropical storms by 27% and hurricanes by 18% by the end of the century. An important reason that their model predicted these decreases was due to a predicted increase in wind shear. As I explain in my wind shear tutorial, a large change of wind speed with height over a hurricane creates a shearing force that tends to tear the storm apart. The amount of wind shear is critical in determining whether a hurricane can form or survive.

But a July 2013 study by MIT's Dr. Kerry Emanuel, "Downscaling CMIP5 climate models shows increased tropical cyclone activity over the 21st century", challenged this result. Dr. Emanuel argued that tropical cyclones are likely to become both stronger and more frequent as the climate continues to warm. This increase is most likely to occur in Western North Pacific, with smaller increases in the Atlantic. Dr. Emanuel took output from six newer higher-resolution climate models used to formulate the 2013 IPCC report, and used the output to drive a high-resolution hurricane model. The simulations found that the global frequency of tropical cyclones would increase by 11% to 40% by 2100, with intensity increases as well. The combined effects produced a global increase in Category 3 and stronger hurricanes of 40%. The behavior of these strongest hurricanes is critical, since they do most of the damage we observe. Over the past century, Category 3 - 5 hurricanes accounted for 85% of US hurricane damage, despite representing only 24% of U.S. landfalling storms. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes made up only 6% of all U.S. landfalls, but accounted for 48% of all U.S. damage (if normalized to account for increases in U.S. population and wealth, see Pielke et al., 2008.)


Figure 2. Projected changes in tropical cyclone track density during the 2006-2100 period compared to the 1950-2005 period, using output from six climate models included in the 2013 IPCC report. The global frequency of tropical cyclones is predicted to increase by 11% to 40%, with the largest changes occurring in the Northwest Pacific off the coast of Japan. Smaller increases are predicted for the Atlantic and near Australia. Image credit: Kerry Emanuel, "Downscaling CMIP5 climate models shows increased tropical cyclone activity over the 21st century", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 8, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1301293110.

However, a study by Knutson et al. (2013), using the same latest-generation climate models as used by Emanuel (2013), but using the output from the models to drive a different high-resolution hurricane model, found a 20% decrease in Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes by 2100. Two other 2013 studies by Villarini et al. and Camargo, also using output from the 2013 IPCC models, found essentially no change in Atlantic tropical cyclones. The reason for the differences, lies, in part, with how much global warming is assumed in the studies. Dr. Emanuel's study, which found an increase in tropical cyclone activity, assumed a worst-case warming situation (RCP 8.5), following the "business as usual" emissions path humanity is currently on. The Knutson et al. study, which found a decrease of 20% in Atlantic tropical cyclones, used a scenario (RCP 4.5) where it was assumed humans will wise up and cause about half of the worst-case greenhouse warming. The study found found "marginally significant" increases in Atlantic Category 4 and 5 hurricanes of 39% - 45% by 2100. These dramatically different results give credence to Dr. Emanuel statement at the end of his paper, "the response of tropical cyclones to projected climate change will remain uncertain for some time to come." The 2013 IPCC report also emphasized the high amount of uncertainty in how climate change might affect hurricanes, stating that there was "low confidence" that we have observed any increases in intense tropical cyclones due to human causes. However, since the 1970s, it is virtually certain (99 - 100% chance) that the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms in the North Atlantic has increased, and there is medium confidence that a reduction in small air pollution particles (aerosols) over the North Atlantic caused part of this effect. The report's forecast for the future stated that it is "more likely than not" (50 - 100% chance) that human-caused climate change will cause a substantial increase in intense tropical cyclones in some ocean basins by 2100, with the Western North Pacific and Atlantic being at particular risk. Also, there will likely (66 - 100% chance) be an increase in both global mean tropical cyclone maximum wind speed and rain rates by 2100, and more likely than not (50 - 100% chance) that the increase in the most intense tropical cyclones will be larger than 10% in some basins.


Figure 3. Expected change in Atlantic Category 4 and 5 hurricanes per decade expected by the year 2100, according to Knutson et al. (2013), "Dynamical Downscaling Projections of 21st Century Atlantic Hurricane Activity: CMIP3 and CMIP5 Model-based Scenarios." This research used the latest generation of climate models from the 2013 IPCC report, and found "marginally significant" increases in Atlantic Category 4 and 5 hurricanes of 39% - 45% by 2100.

Commentary
Hurricane damages are currently doubling every ten years without the effect of climate change, according to Pielke et al., 2008. This is primarily due to the increasing population along the coast and increased wealth of the population. The authors theorize that the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, a Category 4 monster that made a direct hit on Miami Beach, would have caused about $150 billion in damage had it hit in 2005. Thus, by 2015, the same hurricane would do $300 billion in damage, and $600 billion by 2025. This is without considering the impact that accelerating sea level rise will have on storm surge damages. Global sea level rise over the past decade has been about double what it was in the 20th century, and the rate of sea level rise is expected to increase further in the coming decades. Storm surge does the majority of damage in major hurricanes, and storm surges riding on top of higher sea levels are going to do a lot more damage in the coming decades. If we toss in the (controversial) increases in Category 3 and stronger storms like Dr. Emanuel suggests may occur, the hurricane damage math gets very impressive. We can also add onto that the relatively non-controversial increase in tropical cyclone rainfall of 20% expected by 2100, which will sharply increase damages due to fresh water river flooding. It is controversial whether or not we are already be seeing an increase in heavy precipitation events associated with tropical cyclones in the U.S., though. The total number of daily rainfall events exceeding 2" associated with tropical cyclones in the Southeast U.S. on a century time scale has not changed significantly, according to Groisman et al., 2004. But a 2010 study by Kunkel et al., "Recent increases in U.S. heavy precipitation associated with tropical cyclones", found that the number of Southeast U.S. tropical cyclone heavy precipitation events, defined as 1-in-5-year events, more than doubled between 1994 - 2008, compared to the long-term average from 1895 - 2008.


Figure 4. Time series of the 15-year running average (plotted at the end point of the 15-yr blocks) of a Tropical Cyclone Heavy Precipitation Index (red) and 15-year running average of U.S. landfalling hurricanes (blue). Note that there has been no long-term increase in U.S. landfalling hurricanes, but there has been a sharp increase in extreme rainfall events associated with landfalling tropical cyclones--the kind of rainfall events most likely to cause damaging flooding. Image credit: Kunkel et al. (2010), "Recent increases in U.S. heavy precipitation associated with tropical cyclones", Geophysical Research Letters.

It is essential that we limit coastal development in vulnerable coastal areas, particularly along barrier islands, to reduce some of the astronomical price tags hurricanes are going to be causing in the future. Adoption and enforcement of strict building standards is also a must, as well as more reforms to the government's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which subsidizes development in high-risk coastal regions that private insurers won't touch. NFIP is now $25 - 30 billion in the red, thanks to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Reform of NFIP is already underway. In 2012, before Sandy hit, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which requires people with NFIP policies to pay large premium increases of about 25% per year over the next five years. Naturally, this move has caused major controversy.

References
Camargo, S., (2013), "Global and regional aspects of tropical cyclone activity in the CMIP5 models," J. Climate.

Emanuel, K.A., 2013, "Downscaling CMIP5 climate models shows increased tropical cyclone activity over the 21st century", PNAS, July 8, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1301293110

Groisman, Pavel Ya, et al., "Contemporary changes of the hydrological cycle over the contiguous United States: Trends derived from in situ observations," Journal of Hydrometeorology 5.1 (2004): 64-85.

Knutson et al., 2010, "Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change", Nature Geoscience 3, 157 - 163, Published online: 21 February 2010 | doi:10.1038/ngeo779

Knutson et al., 2013, Dynamical Downscaling Projections of 21st Century Atlantic Hurricane Activity: CMIP3 and CMIP5 Model-based Scenarios, Journal of Climate 2013 ; e-View
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00539.1

Pielke, R.A, et al., 2008, "Normalized Hurricane Damage in the United States: 1900 - 2005," Natural Hazards Review, DOI:10.1061/ASCE1527-6988(2008)9:1(29)

Villarini, G, and G.A. Vecchi, 2012, "Twenty-first-century projections of North Atlantic tropical storms from CMIP5 models," Nature Clim. Change 2:604–607.

Related posts
Global warming and the frequency of intense Atlantic hurricanes: model results, my 2010 blog post.

Climate Central's analysis of the new 2013 Kerry Emanuel paper.

Goodbye, Miami: Jeff Goodell's sobering 2013 article in Rolling Stone on the challenges Miami faces due to sea level rise and hurricanes.


What the official climate assessments say about climate change and hurricanes
The 2013 IPCC report gives “low confidence”--a 20% chance--that we have observed a human-caused increase in intense hurricanes in some parts of the world. This is a reduction in odds from the 2007 report, which said that it was more likely than not (greater than 50% chance.) The IPCC likely took note of a landmark 2010 review paper, "Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change", authored by ten top hurricane scientists, which concluded that the U.S. had not seen any long-term increase in landfalling tropical storms and hurricanes, and that "it remains uncertain whether past changes in tropical cyclone activity have exceeded the variability expected from natural causes." The 2013 IPCC report predicts that there is a greater than 50% chance (more likely than not) that we will see a human-caused increase in intense hurricanes by 2100 in some regions; this is also a reduction from the 2007 report, which said this would be likely (66% chance or higher.)

The May 2014 United States National Climate Assessment found that “The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s. The relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases are still uncertain. Hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.”

Jeff Masters

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Peroni, coming right up

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting 1406. SouthernIllinois:

I am working on busting the death ridge. I am really really working on it. I wanna bust on this blog showing 3-4" for Southern Illinois AND Texas. And that is the truth Baby!!



wat
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Recent Ascat

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Quoting 1461. Grothar:


I don't think the next storm will be named Allan :):)


That's how I read it too! I was confused at first!
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Quoting 1462. SouthernIllinois:

lol. Nice.


;) you betcha, how bout a Fresca,
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1461. Grothar
Quoting 1451. GTstormChaserCaleb:
I think it is Allan and it may interact with the TUTT:



I don't think the next storm will be named Allan :):)
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#1455

So will above average rainfall on saturated soaked grounds
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The GFS Ensemble have it too but it is going into the GOM at 240HR but you can see it at 168HR on the GFS Ensemble
Quoting 1454. redwagon:


All hail King GFS! Bring TX some homegrown! It should pick up on genesis in the NW CARIB any day now.
Member Since: May 23, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 4509


Windsat shows a decent circulation around 13N/53W from last night. 13N/48W seems to be the stronger of the 2 now.
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Quoting 1439. moonlightcowboy:
While we are in somewhat of a lull, and at the risk of censorship/ban, thought I'd remind us all in a good song of some simple, pure thoughts of the temporariness and sometimes fragility in/of our lives with weather and in life. This one's for all the parents with little ones and big ones off to school/college and life ahead today. And, for them too! God bless 'em!

...we're gonna have a good time then! ;)





Mods, I'm humble with my indulgence. :) Peace out, have a GR8 day, all!


Great song Cowboy! I have a 15 year old and a 5 year old and right now I cherish the time I can get with both of them but it's getting to be a challenge with the 15 year old, so glad he hunts with me! I know it will get harder once he gets his drivers license! Temperature update, 86 and it feels like 94, glad the A/C is working!
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1455. Patrap
#1453

10 % more WV per cubic Meter will do dat.
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Quoting 1420. GTstormChaserCaleb:
Interesting, now we await King GFS to come onboard, then it is game on. :D


All hail King GFS! Bring TX some homegrown! It should pick up on genesis in the NW CARIB any day now.
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Quoting 1433. unknowncomic:
Far from over here in Florida and the tropics are just starting to percolate! COME ON DOWN.


It is ridiculously humid this year!
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1452. txjac
Quoting 1429. barbamz:
Back for a short time from Germany. Thunderstorm passed my place (Mainz) uneventful, but thankfully leaving 7mm (0,27 inch) of rain - first measurable rain for many weeks. So I don't complain, the more as temps dropped considerably (sigh of relief!).

The storms of the MCS seem to strengthen now, though, heading to the northeast.




Good for you. Love that just rained cool feeling ..at least I think I do ..been so long since I experienced it ...lol
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Quoting 1449. allancalderini:
Is the tropical wave near the antilles the catalyst of the storm that will supposedly develop in the south western Caribbean sea?
I think it is Allan and it may interact with the TUTT:

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Quoting 1427. Grothar:


We were stationed in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for awhile near Rolla. Lake of the Ozarks was really a great place for camping and hiking.
I left the gulf coast for a girl up there, bad choice both ways. But it was interesting to go to the river on hot days, cool water and rock bottom instead of dirty, muddy hot water lol
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Is the tropical wave near the antilles the catalyst of the storm that will supposedly develop in the south western Caribbean sea?
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Quoting 1428. SouthernIllinois:

It'll also work out great cuz just order 50 bare root seeldings for Shumard red oak and 50 bare root seedlings for Nuttall red oaks and planting them is SO much easier when the ground is not a desert like last year. Of course that's not till NOvember when I will plant them but at least a good soaking now will lay the groundwork for a production offseason. Hopefully.


Where did you get your seedlings? I'm always looking for good seedling sources for our Hunting Camp in SW Alabama.
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... and the low at 45W seems to be weakening now :(
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Quoting 1426. no1der:
Meanwhile,  most of the continent will not experience below normal temperatures:

http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/predictions /short_range/NAEFS/Outlook_D264.00.php





Great lake trough not good.
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1443. bwi
Cloudy and cool in DC this morning

Overcast
69°F
21°C
Humidity87%
Wind SpeedS 10 mph
Barometer30.06 in (1018.0 mb)
Dewpoint65°F (18°C)
Visibility10.00 mi
Last Update on 6 Aug 9:52 am EDT
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1442. Grothar


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1441. Patrap
Orleans
Heat Advisory
Statement as of 4:00 AM CDT on August 06, 2013

... Heat advisory in effect from 11 am this morning to 7 PM CDT
this evening...

The National Weather Service in New Orleans has issued a heat
advisory... which is in effect from 11 am this morning to 7 PM CDT
this evening.

* Timing... from late this morning through late this evening.

* Duration... heat index values in excess of 105 degrees and as
high as 108 degrees are expected this afternoon and this
evening for several hours across the area.

Precautionary/preparedness actions...

A heat advisory means that a period of hot temperatures is
expected. The combination of hot temperatures and high humidity
will combine to create a situation in which heat illnesses are
possible. Drink plenty of fluids... stay in an air-conditioned
room... stay out of the sun... and check up on relatives and
neighbors.



98/so
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Quoting 1433. unknowncomic:
Far from over here in Florida and the tropics are just starting to percolate! COME ON DOWN.


It will be November before summer is over for us.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
While we are in somewhat of a lull, and at the risk of censorship/ban, thought I'd remind us all in a good song of some simple, pure thoughts of the temporariness and sometimes fragility in/of our lives with weather and in life. This one's for all the parents with little ones and big ones off to school/college and life ahead today. And, for them too! God bless 'em!

...we're gonna have a good time then! ;)





Mods, I'm humble with my indulgence. :) Peace out, have a GR8 day, all!
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29610
The GFS Ensemble have it too but it is going into the GOM at 240HR but you can see it at 168HR on the GFS Ensemble
Quoting 1420. GTstormChaserCaleb:
Interesting, now we await King GFS to come onboard, then it is game on. :D
Member Since: May 23, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 4509
Quoting 1418. StAugustineFL:


What about Simon and Theodore?



Drought took its toll on them
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Quoting 1369. SFLWeatherman:
CMC Ensemble shows the system down in the SW Caribbean going into the GOM like what the FIM-7: and FIM-8: are doing!


Thanks, SFL! Models have been in unusual agreement about a storm for TX. I like the FIM-8 the most!
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Quoting 1424. SouthernIllinois:

ENOUGH with that song!! lol


It plays everyday, you know you like it
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Quoting 1403. SouthernIllinois:

Summer is OVER for many!
Far from over here in Florida and the tropics are just starting to percolate! COME ON DOWN.
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Quoting 1415. BahaHurican:
Wow. Some SERIOUS rain chances on there...



Yeah, NAM's tropical forecasts have a very poor track record.
But I remember either last year or the year before that the NAM predicted a storm forming in the lower Caribbean that would move northward up towards the Yucatan then turn towards Cuba/Florida straights then out to sea. It was the only model that predicted the storm accurately.

Every once in a while a blind dog finds a bone.
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Quoting 1404. SouthernIllinois:
Oh man do I ever love the new quote feature that displays the number of the post that was quoted. Helps out big time!


+1 Sure does!
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1430. Grothar
Quoting 1418. StAugustineFL:


What about Simon and Theodore?



LOL.
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1429. barbamz
Back for a short time from Germany. Thunderstorm passed my place (Mainz) uneventfully, but thankfully leaving 7mm (0,27 inch) of rain - first measurable rain for many weeks. So I don't complain, the more as temps dropped considerably (sigh of relief!).

The storms of the MCS seem to strengthen now, though, heading to the northeast.


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1427. Grothar
Quoting 1407. StormPro:


I lived there for about a year, hate that place lol. They have summer and mud season


We were stationed in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for awhile near Rolla. Lake of the Ozarks was really a great place for camping and hiking.
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1426. no1der
Meanwhile,  most of the continent will not experience below normal temperatures:

http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/predictions /short_range/NAEFS/Outlook_D264.00.php






Quoting 1401. luvtogolf:
Much of the country to enjoy below normal temperatures.


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Quoting 1418. StAugustineFL:


What about Simon and Theodore?

Not in coastal GA they won't...
Member Since: October 25, 2005 Posts: 19 Comments: 22071
by the way, the Rolling Stone article Dr. M lists as a "related post", Goodbye, Miami, is right up there with Sharknado in terms of science. Fiction, pure and simple--in a "politics" column nonetheless. And from a rag that glorified a murdering terrorist on its cover to boot. No thank you. The science Gods are shaking their heads.
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1421. Grothar
Quoting 1412. redwagon:


Charlene Tilton from Dallas?


No, Charlene Frazier from Designing Women. Mrs. Grothar never missed it, and unfortunately, neither did I. It was pre-computer days.
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Quoting 1369. SFLWeatherman:
CMC Ensemble shows the system down in the SW Caribbean going into the GOM like what the FIM-7: and FIM-8: are doing!
Interesting, now we await King GFS to come onboard, then it is game on. :D
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Quoting 1411. Sfloridacat5:
Nam 78 hours - moisture blog still there. With water temps in the mid to upper 80s, who knows?



The NAM shows heavy rains for us... but of course that won't happen.
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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