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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Quoting 2164. Stormchaser121:
I'm gonna be positive and say Tx will get something soon

Storm, this season may have something very special for Texas. You've gotten some relief this summer and there's a decent chance of more to come. Now would be a good time to invest in cisterns so you have irrigation water once the season's over. But that's not the American way. We use it and lose it. lol :-(
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Quoting 2166. KoritheMan:


You don't know if it's going to happen or not. I'm sure everyone said the same thing with Sandy.

That's why we tell you to be prepared.


Can you not? Aggravating.

Sorry, let me say I'm pretty damn confident.
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Do we really need a devastating storm just so bloggers can forget about a lull and to make this a good season? How many roofs have to blow off or how many folks have to die to make it "good"?
Member Since: August 3, 2005 Posts: 10 Comments: 5527
Quoting 2161. wxgeek723:


That's a roundabout way of putting it. I'm just saying...no.


You don't know if it's going to happen or not. I'm sure everyone said the same thing with Sandy.

That's why we tell you to be prepared.
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Quoting 2153. KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
the first two will lead the way vapour it up

true that as Pottery would say
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I'm gonna be positive and say Tx will get something soon
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Quoting 2143. barbamz:
New BBC weather video with puzzling forecasts for China:

Drought contrasts with floods in China
6 August 2013 Last updated at 17:04 Help
China continues to be a country of extremes, where heat and drought in some regions contrast sharply with heavy rain and flooding elsewhere.
BBC Weather's Susan Powell appeared on BBC World's Global with Sopel programme to look at the situation in detail.



Those are some high temps! 42C (107F), going to 45C (115F) soon. And I've been complaining about high 90s. Their straight up temp is as high as the heat index is here.
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okay over and out.
east carib wave looks safely contained.
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Quoting 2157. NJcat3cane:
No wishcasting here.. smh just stated a few facts.


That's a roundabout way of putting it. I'm just saying...no.
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According to the 0z ATCF update, Gil's done.

EP, 07, 2013080700, , BEST, 0, 134N, 1422W, 25, 1010, LO
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FIM will either be right and the other models will start to latch on, or it will bust. Another solution is for it to develop in the EPAC.
Member Since: June 30, 2013 Posts: 11 Comments: 7473
2158. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)



Same here!


whose post do I need to hide? username and password is popping up..


It's a post number below 2145 (I am not seeing it anymore with my display of 10 posts per page)
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Quoting 2148. wxgeek723:


If our crappy weather continues I don't see how they could rise much more...

Besides just because Sandy took the 1% chance track doesn't mean that the Mid Atlantic is no longer safely tucked away.

Don't wishcast a storm to NJ. WE DON'T WANT IT.
No wishcasting here.. smh just stated a few facts.
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You can see the beginnings of something developing in the SW Caribbean in 7 days.

Member Since: June 30, 2013 Posts: 11 Comments: 7473
Quoting 2149. SuperStorm093:


Lets see how they deal with some dry air and shear.




guess we'll soon find out
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2154. ncstorm
Shark Week on DHC..what in the world!!..the actual footage of people getting attacked is making everyone in my house holler..
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2153. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting 2152. Chicklit:

The one at 12N 5W looks particularly noxious.
the first two will lead the way vapour it up
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Quoting 2146. KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
you can see huh the 3 of them all in a row

The one at 12N 5W looks particularly noxious.
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2151. 2ifbyC
Quoting 2138. ncstorm:
whose post do I need to hide? username and password is popping up..


Same here!
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Quoting 2148. wxgeek723:


If our crappy weather continues I don't see how they could rise much more...
True air temps would have to rebound slightly but not all that much.. 80s and low 90s for a week or so would probably do the trick.
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Quoting 2142. Chicklit:
oh boy...


glad I'm not in charge of the world


Lets see how they deal with some dry air and shear.
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Quoting 2145. NJcat3cane:
Water temps are also getting pretty warm up here too. With plenty of time left to warm more just about all northeast and mid Atlantic coastal areas will be slightly above normal if they are not already. Similar to the 50s and 60s allowing storms to maintain intensity as they come north up the east coast.

Location: - - - - - -Temp: - - - - Average:

Montauk NY - - - - 71.1- - - - - - - 70
The Battery NY - - 72.5- - - - - - - 74
Sandy Hook NJ - - 78.3- - - - - - - 72
Atlantic City NJ -- 73.8- - - - - - - 72
Cape May NJ - - - 75.7- - - - - - - 74
Lewes DE - - - - - 72.7- - - - - - - 76
Ocean City MD - - 73.0- - - - - - - 71


If our crappy weather continues I don't see how they could rise much more...

Besides just because Sandy took the 1% chance track doesn't mean that the Mid Atlantic is no longer safely tucked away.

Don't wishcast a storm to NJ. WE DON'T WANT IT.
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2147. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
Japan Meteorological Agency
Tropical Cyclone Advisory #17
TROPICAL STORM MANGKHUT (T1310)
9:00 AM JST August 7 2013
================================

SUBJECT: Category One Typhoon Named Cyclone In Gulf Of Tonkin

At 0:00 AM UTC, Tropical Storm Mangkhut (994 hPa) located at 18.1N 108.3E has 10 minute sustained winds of 40 knots with gusts of 60 knots. The cyclone is reported as moving northwest at 15 knots.

Gale Force Winds
================
120 NM from the center

Dvorak intensity: T2.5

Forecast and Intensity
========================
24 HRS: 21.4N 104.8E - Tropical Depression overland Vietnam
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2146. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting 2142. Chicklit:
oh boy...
you can see huh the 3 of them all in a row
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Water temps are also getting pretty warm up here too. With plenty of time left to warm more just about all northeast and mid Atlantic coastal areas will be slightly above normal if they are not already. Similar to the 50s and 60s allowing storms to maintain intensity as they come north up the east coast.

Location: - - - - - -Temp: - - - - Average:

Montauk NY - - - - 71.1- - - - - - - 70
The Battery NY - - 72.5- - - - - - - 74
Sandy Hook NJ - - 78.3- - - - - - - 72
Atlantic City NJ -- 73.8- - - - - - - 72
Cape May NJ - - - 75.7- - - - - - - 74
Lewes DE - - - - - 72.7- - - - - - - 76
Ocean City MD - - 73.0- - - - - - - 71
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Quoting 2119. Walshy:


Pretty interesting, in particular the level of excess precip in AZ in contrast to parts of CA with no precip for the last 3 months.
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2143. barbamz
New BBC weather video with puzzling forecasts for China:

Drought contrasts with floods in China
6 August 2013 Last updated at 17:04 Help
China continues to be a country of extremes, where heat and drought in some regions contrast sharply with heavy rain and flooding elsewhere.
BBC Weather's Susan Powell appeared on BBC World's Global with Sopel programme to look at the situation in detail.

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oh boy...


glad I'm not in charge of the world
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Evening Wunderfolk,
Mangkhut in the WPac is looking nasty tonight.
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Walshy, your picture requires a username and password.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 31462
Quoting 2133. MississippiWx:


No, u.


I think what he was trying to say is 'u DO know this is shark week on DSC, right?'

Crawnado.. hysterical. Millions of people holding up boiling pots full of corn, taters and Zatarain's.

C'mon, ECARIB wave.
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2138. ncstorm
whose post do I need to hide? username and password is popping up..
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Where do you live Viking? I live near the airport in Cordova Park and it has hardly rained enough to make the ground wet. I've been keeping an eye on the radar for the past few hours and the rain just keeps missing me. I haven't had to run my sprinklers in over 3 weeks an want to keep that streak going! I hope some of that rain to our north makes it my way!!
Quoting 2079. 69Viking:


Not missing me, storm total up to 1" and still raining, more rain to the North in Bama moving South!


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Quoting 2132. GTstormChaserCaleb:
Even a TS could be a big problem at this point. Good news is we may get some typical dry August weather coming up.
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2135. barbamz
Quoting 2102. Patrap:


Earth Atmo 2.0 Holds 10 % more Water Vapor per Cubic Meter now..and we see it Globally in many unique reports, continuing daily.


I believe you, lol. Look at this (infrared loop western Europe):



European forecasts for tomorrow are out on estofex.org (scroll down to read the discussion). Once again we are in the red cone for severe weather.
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Quoting 2121. KoritheMan:


I don't think this heat wave is going to be that prolonged.


I dunno, Kori! Pretty gall-darned hot, humid way down here! But, it is August! ;)
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Quoting 2116. Thrawst:
u


No, u.
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Member Since: June 30, 2013 Posts: 11 Comments: 7473
Every time I start thinking that the season is starting out slow, out of no where a train of waves start showing up...so try to stay alert .
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Quoting 2124. KoritheMan:


It was already at 80 kt...


Thank you for the clarification.
Member Since: April 29, 2009 Posts: 75 Comments: 14009
Quoting 2121. KoritheMan:


I don't think this heat wave is going to be that prolonged.
hopefully so its too hot! i feel bad for texas though
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2128. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
TSR also releases seasonal forecasts for the West Pacific basin.

Their update calls for 22 named storms, 13 hurricanes, and 7 major hurricanes (all equivalencies), in addition to an ACE value of 230.

This is significantly less than the forecast of 26 named stoms, 16 hurricanes, 9 major hurricanes (all equivalencies as well), and an ACE index of 311 units from May.


so even lower than 2012..

25 named cyclones out of 28 depression that was forecast to become a tropical storm (gale warning/advisories issued) last year.
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Quoting 2049. Grothar:


Hva en tullebukk !

.



En orkan, en tornado, og en wunderblogger gå inn i en bar ....
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2126. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting 2121. KoritheMan:


I don't think this heat wave is going to be that prolonged.


it could snow by the end of august across the high arctic
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.
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Quoting 2120. Tropicsweatherpr:
00z Best Track for Henriette up to 80kts.

EP, 08, 2013080700, , BEST, 0, 149N, 1327W, 80, 981, HU


It was already at 80 kt...
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2123. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
Quoting 2117. Patrap:


That cant happen due to the Earths Mass and Size Keep,..but maybe do a Sc-Fi channel script. They like dat tune usually.

This was my script title I sent them.





just making a joke pat who knows what can happen really
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Where has Camille been? He said he would tell me I was right if Dorian didnt become a 60 KT storm, guess he vanished after his Wilma prediction lol.
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Quoting 2114. bigwes6844:
forget the hurricane season stuff right now till next week or whenever get this darn heatwave away from us in nola! we need rain!!! me and pat praying for sum


I don't think this heat wave is going to be that prolonged.
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00z Best Track for Henriette up to 80kts.

EP, 08, 2013080700, , BEST, 0, 149N, 1327W, 80, 981, HU
Member Since: April 29, 2009 Posts: 75 Comments: 14009
2119. Walshy
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About

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.