Warmer Water, SUPER HURRICANES

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 12:33 PM GMT on July 24, 2007

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The July 2007 issue of Scientific American has an article called "Warmer Oceans, Stronger Hurricanes" (referred to as "Warmer Water, SUPER HURRICANES" on the cover). The article is written by Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and a lead author on the landmark 2007 climate report issued by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The article makes the case that "evidence is mounting that global warming enhances a cyclone's damaging winds and flooding rains." The article presents some solid evidence to substantiate that point of view, which I will share below. However, I was disappointed in the general tone of the piece, which was over-hyped and did not paint an objective view of the current scientific thinking on the global warming/hurricane issue.

The hype
First off, the reader is hit with a dramatic full-page artist's depiction of the global super-hurricane of the future--a massive 5000-mile diameter Caribbean storm the size of North America. The storm's 200-mile eye is wider than the Florida Peninsula! Whoa, I said when looking at the whopper "SciAmicane". No doubt many readers perusing the magazine, trying to decide whether to buy it, had the same reaction and plunked down their $5 to read about this grim threat. OK, lets talk reality here. The largest tropical cyclone on record, Supertyphoon Tip of 1979, had a diameter of 1380 miles--less than one third the size of the SciAmicane. A storm like the SciAmicane cannot physically exist on Earth unless the oceans were to super-heat to about 122°F (50°C). Only an asteroid impact or similar calamity could create such a hypercane. Even the most extreme global warming scenarios do not heat the oceans to 122°, so the SciAmicane is there to sell magazines, not to illustrate what global warming might do to hurricanes.


Figure 1. Comparison of sizes: the Earth, the largest tropical cyclone on record (Supertyphoon Tip of 1979, 1380 miles in diameter), and the recently discovered hurricane-like vortex on Saturn (the Saturnicane). The "SciAmicane" is about the same size as the Saturnicane--5000 miles across.

The article also calls attention to 2004, when "an unprecedented four hurricanes hit Florida, and 10 typhoons made landfall in Japan". I've erroneously made this statement, too, but the truth is that Japan was hit by only four typhoons in 2004. Ten tropical cyclones that were of typhoon strength at some point during their life did hit, yes, but six of these had decayed to tropical storm or tropical depression strength by the time they hit Japan. The article then refers to a "consensus explanation" emerging to explain recent hurricane activity patterns, and "that explanation forebodes meteorological trouble over the long term." I'd say that the issue is still very much under dispute. In fact, the consensus statement on hurricanes and climate change adopted by the World Meteorological Organization in December 2006, in response to the recommendations of a panel of 125 hurricane researchers was thus: "Though there is evidence both for and against the existence of a detectable anthropogenic signal in the tropical cyclone climate record to date, no firm conclusion can be made on this point." Trenberth's article gives a list of four publications to read in the "more to explore" section, but none of these include the recent articles that call into question the strength of the global warming/stronger hurricane connection. (I apologize for not reviewing the many excellent articles that have appeared on this subject of late!)

The good science
There's quite a bit of good science in the article, which is worth reading if one keeps in mind its biases. In particular, I like the discussion of how global warming has affected precipitation and atmospheric water vapor. The 0.6°C (1.0°F) rise in Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) globally since 1970 has increased water vapor in the atmosphere by 4%, thanks to increased evaporation. This in turn has led to an 8% increase in global precipitation. Trenberth makes the point that no given hurricane can be blamed on global warming, but one can say 8% of a given storm's rainfall is due to global warming. There's also a nice discussion about how weaker than normal trade winds over the tropical Atlantic in 2005 caused less evaporational cooling than normal, allowing the ocean to heat to record temperatures. Finally, the conclusion of the article is one I certainly agree with:

We would all be wise to plan for more extreme hurricane threats.

Both theory and computer models predict a 3-5% increase in hurricane winds per degree C increase in tropical SSTs, and there is concern that the actual increase may be much more than this.

Jeff Masters

For a technical treatment of hypercanes, see Dr. Kerry Emanuel's paper, Hypercanes: a possible link in global extinction scenarios.

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741. moonlightcowboy
4:52 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Hey, I've got a good tune for you then. Care to hear it? It's a good one, and if you listen, I'm sure you'll like it!
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29594
740. RL3AO
11:49 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
1992 had 7 storms.

You could have chose

1993...8 storms
1994...7 storms
1997...7 storms

But you chose the year with the most devastating Hurricane to hit the US in the entire 20th century.
737. Chicklit
4:50 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Moonlight...don't talk to him and he might go away.
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736. Prgal
4:50 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Or the ignore button?
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735. moonlightcowboy
4:50 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
What music do you like?
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29594
733. stormybil
4:47 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
bluehaze please think that over you maybe safe from the wind and surge but not tornados remember andrew it wast the wind that destoyed homestead it was the 16 TORNADOS FROM THE STORM SO TO SAY YOU WILL STAY IS VERY BAD . i hope you ill change your mind
731. bluehaze27
4:48 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Actually, hurricane andrew victims were hit thrice. Once by Andrew. Twice by the rain for weeks afterwards, and thrice by the shyster contractors so....
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730. Chicklit
4:49 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Where's the 'delete' button?
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728. Prgal
4:49 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
I am betting some people here havent experienced what a hurricane is really like. And I will tell you something, there is nothing "cool" about it.
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727. moonlightcowboy
4:49 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Wishcaster, do you like music?
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29594
724. Chicklit
4:42 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Troll...
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720. RL3AO
11:45 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
RL3AO, how does it prove I'm a "troll"?

Because you said "I don't want the season to be a dud like 1992"

Which is the year Andrew devastated the US. If you weren't a troll, you wouldn't have chose such a random year.
719. bluehaze27
4:38 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
I'm not evacuating and I live in Homestead, Fl. I'm in Flood zone X (500 year flood plane)so I should be OK for a flooding situation. I have a tile roof on the townhouse with shutters so I should be fine for wind. In many cases, evacuation is not the best alternative. What if you are stuck in traffic when the storm comes in? What if you evacuate into the path as the path changes unexpectedly a la Charly? Seek shelter from the wind, move inland to escape the flooding. Most flooding in South Florida will be of the blocked canal variety. Storm surge won't go very far because of the structural (houses and buildings on coastline) wave disruption. At most a storm surge would go in about a 1/4 to 1/2 a mile.
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718. KoritheMan
11:46 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
Korrith its normal to have only 2 storms by july 24th...jus because its not like 2005 and there hasent been 5-6 storms isnt anything 05 was extremly active and thats why it has people thinkin this year wil be slow because of it being normal. not extremly active.

2005 hypnotized people. You are right...
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717. moonlightcowboy
4:43 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Hip, if your mom is 83 and you say it'd be difficult for her to endure a period without electricity...then, I know you have a plan.

I'm thinking "leave early" if you can if a storm is in any proximity. Really, it's not my business, and I'm surely not trying to tell you how to run yours. All, I'm thinking, is that you sound like one really smart fellow and that you probably have a plan for her safety, too!
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29594
714. angelbabiez123
4:42 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
That wishcaster guy is really irritating me.... grow up, please.
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713. KoritheMan
11:45 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
as per good old max stated yesterday . DONT LET YOUR GAURD DOWN THIS WILL STILL BE A VERY ACTIVE SEASON .one year the first name storm formed on july 31 and 15 others folowed along stay tuned

Yes. Exactly, stormybil. Why can't everyone understand this and simply accept it?
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711. TexJonnie
11:36 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
WishCaster, sorry your college money hinges on the # of storms that form this year. I don't know how that happened to you, but you got a raw deal there. All you can do is sit back and watch it unfold.

KoritheMan, thanks for being so bold! ((hugs))

TexJonnie
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710. KoritheMan
11:43 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
I hate people who snitch and come crying into aaron's little lap every time you see something you don't like...

I don't ever fiddle with Aaron, so if you got reported and banned, it wouldn't be my doing.

And I do hate when people deny storms are going to form when the conditions are right there for it (they haven't been so far, but that will probably change soon). I really do. But I'm not going to berate people like you do because of that, either.
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709. stormybil
4:40 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
as per good old max stated yesterday . DONT LET YOUR GAURD DOWN THIS WILL STILL BE A VERY ACTIVE SEASON .one year the first name storm formed on july 31 and 15 others folowed along stay tuned
707. Prgal
4:42 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Kid, you just proved how inmature you are. Just let them continue talking about the weather and let God rest for a while, ok? Someone who spents his/her college money on a dumb bet certainly doesnt deserve my attention. Work and grow as a human being.
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706. moonlightcowboy
4:43 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Wishcaster, do you like music?
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29594
705. KoritheMan
11:43 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
Hip, then I "know" you have a plan for sure! Good!

What do you mean by that, mlc? Please explain.
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704. KoritheMan
11:42 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
RL3AO, how does it prove I'm a "troll"?

How about you aren't a troll, but act like a reprobate with your statements.
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703. moonlightcowboy
4:39 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Hip, then I "know" you have a plan for sure! Good!
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29594
699. KoritheMan
11:39 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
.
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697. RL3AO
11:39 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
I DON'T WANT IT TO BE A DUD LIKE 1992!!!

That proves he is a troll. Now quit responding to him and report his comments.
696. KoritheMan
11:38 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
God doesn't exist. After all, if God created man, who created God? And, if God was good, why would he let African children DIE of STARVATION???

Life isn't perfect. People need to get off their freaking soapboxes and realize that. Suffering occurs just as blessings occur.
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695. Prgal
4:38 AM GMT on July 25, 2007
Well, that was a dumb thing to do. If you need money work and earn it!
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694. RL3AO
11:37 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
Yeah but I think he is just a troll that everyone feeds.
691. KoritheMan
11:37 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
She's a trooper.....but another 19 days without power here will finish her off I fear.

Where does she live, if I may ask?
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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.