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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291. riceowl
7:18 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
There was a study reported in the journal Nature a few weeks ago that contradicts the warmer ocean -> bigger storms theory. The authors of the study were able to use sand cores from a Carribean lagoon to get a record of hurricane activity going back several hundred years to the "little ice age". They determined that large storms were more frequent in cooler periods and less frequent in warmer periods.
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288. nola70119
7:26 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
OK Stormtop, calm down.
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287. EdMahmoud
7:25 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Pretty good looking spin about 37N, but just low clouds.
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286. nola70119
7:24 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Where did you get that hipdeep? That isn't funny.
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283. TropicTraveler
7:24 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
First time on this very interesting discussion. I work in disaster relief and have seen and heard pros and cons of evacuating. For sure someone who is disabled or needs special care should plan ahead and leave early rather than late when needed.
If Charlie had been a dead hit on Tampa I shudder to think how much worse it would have been. Some areas were like a bomb dropped on them.
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281. nola70119
7:21 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
If you can afford to evac get out early.....
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279. hcubed
2:20 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
"Posted By: moonlightcowboy at 1:37 PM CDT on July 24, 2007.

Posted By: EdMahmoud at 6:13 PM GMT on July 24, 2007.....people are supposed to stay put and prepare to ride out the storm, including provisions for several days without electricity, at home, so the people who really do need to leave, can.

...Ed, I think you're taking things a tad out of context; but you're right here. Officials have a plan. That's good. But, you can't force people to stay, just like you can't force them to leave in an emergency. I for one, don't want to stay anywhere without A/C for more than a day really, let alone a week or two."


And then there are those who NEED power. My wife is on a CPAP, and so having no power could kill her. No A/C, no machine, so we leave. Bring her back when power is restored.
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278. nola70119
7:17 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
So where is the Bermuda high? Is it sound or north? Isn't this a relative easy thing to assess--that was the Foxnews spin.
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275. nola70119
7:12 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
The authorities haven't got a clue.....say a slow moving Cat 3 hits between Morgan City, LA and the Mississippi. That will reflood NOLA, overwhelm all the West Bank with a very large population, and all the towns that service the oil rigs in the GOM. Its not a theoretical, if a storm ends up there its inevitable, and anything coming from the West comes back door and not influenced by the cold surface temps of the Mississippi River flow.
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272. hcubed
2:10 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
"Posted By: leftovers at 1:54 PM CDT on July 24, 2007.

If you dont evac. dont forget to keep a hatchet in the attic."


And a boat tied to your chimney...
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270. nola70119
7:05 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Sounds like things are heating up, so too speak-- the Bay of Campeche is not too far away and we in La are vulnerable to anything that hits our west.
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268. moonlightcowboy
6:58 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Posted By: sonofagunn at 6:48 PM GMT on July 24, 2007.
mlc - the local authorities in this area (West coast of Florida) specifically say they DON'T WANT people who don't live in low lying areas or mobile homes to evacuate. Being stuck in a traffic jam is a bigger risk than wind damage from most hurricanes.

The best bet for people at higher elevations is to stock up on water and non-perishable food and ride it out.

I'm sure for a CAT 5 it might be a different story, but for most hurricanes that have threatened this coast, that has been their advice.


That's good sonofagun! The authorities have a plan. TO BE CLEAR one last time: I have never said "evacuate." The post only stated that a Cat 1 or 2 storm landfalling on the MS coast would likely have serious consequences. The report did mention apathy to not evacuating with 1 or 2 conditions, which was meant to show the consequences of no evacuation with the present conditions.

Since then ED suggested riding out a Cat 1 or 2 if they were inland so far or out of harm's way. I responded saying that was not good advice. -- The "best" advice is to "listen and follow" the instructions of authorities. Go back and read the posts.

After that there were a couple of posts, and one of mine, that sited, even further inland a storm can cause great inconvenience! And therefore, a "good plan" is suggested for all. I don't think anyone wants to be without power or medical care, or any of those things for "any" length of time.

Sure evacuations are tough in FL; but I can assure you, that they'll be tough in MS if there is some imminent danger, and I'm afraid the outcome won't be peachy.

Now, I hope that's all clear! I appreciate the posts and the opinions. Just, please be careful, ask others to have a plan. Pay attention to what's going on and act with some good common sense!

....uuuuumm, btw I plan on running for office...any support out there? LOL...now, back to the regularly scheduled bickering and blob watching!
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265. sporteguy03
7:04 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Thanks Patrap
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264. Patrap
2:02 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
My only concern now is the Bay of Campeche.Everything else is only thought ,especially off Africa..thats 9 days from anywhere .
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263. stoormfury
6:58 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
yes fellow bloggers the area is getting more pronounced with rotation near 12N 40W .well it seems that the period of calm is soon coming to an end.
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262. sporteguy03
6:59 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Patrap,
On Direct observation do you see anything currently in the CATL?
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261. Patrap
1:59 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
GOES-12 IR GOM Loop...Link
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260. Patrap
1:58 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
I dont do the model thing.I use direct observation.You wont find a post from me on a Model ..ever.
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259. Patrap
1:56 PM CDT on July 24, 2007
Guerra Family Video....Aug 29th,2005
St. Bernard,Louisiana.
All you ever want to know about storm surge and staying.
In their own words Link
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258. sporteguy03
6:55 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Drak, JP, TCC, Stormkat, Patrap, Hurricane23 and others looking at models
What evidence that you see supports the models?

What evidence does not support model development?
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257. hurricane23
2:54 PM EDT on July 24, 2007
Posted By: sporteguy03 at 2:53 PM EDT on July 24, 2007. (hide)
I didn't see anything on the Navy No Gaps model, have a pic of it?

Navy Nogaps
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255. sporteguy03
6:52 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
I didn't see anything on the Navy No Gaps model, have a pic of it?
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252. TexasRiverRat
6:49 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Look out GOM says Houston last week!!!

http://www.myfoxhouston.com/myfox/pages/Weather/Detail?contentId=3825793&version=3&locale=EN-US&lay outCode=VSTY&pageId=9.1.1Link
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251. Murko
6:46 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Quick question: what's the best IR loop map to use for the Bahamas, which will give a fairly close up image and most recently updated. The one on WU is OK but often a bit screwed up, and GOES is usually about an hour behind current time.

TIA
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249. sonofagunn
6:40 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
mlc - the local authorities in this area (West coast of Florida) specifically say they DON'T WANT people who don't live in low lying areas or mobile homes to evacuate. Being stuck in a traffic jam is a bigger risk than wind damage from most hurricanes.

The best bet for people at higher elevations is to stock up on water and non-perishable food and ride it out.

I'm sure for a CAT 5 it might be a different story, but for most hurricanes that have threatened this coast, that has been their advice.
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247. sporteguy03
6:46 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
StormJunkie,
You been to Central Florida?
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246. sporteguy03
6:44 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
JP,
Later in the day 60% T-Storms.

What about the NOGaps no development yet?
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244. StormJunkie
6:40 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Afternoon all ☺

Well, with the GFS, Ukmet, and CMC showing the EATL wave developing it is becoming more and more interesting.

My guess is it makes at least a TD within a week.

See y'all in a couple.
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242. moonlightcowboy
6:31 PM GMT on July 24, 2007
Posted By: EdMahmoud at 6:13 PM GMT on July 24, 2007.....people are supposed to stay put and prepare to ride out the storm, including provisions for several days without electricity, at home, so the people who really do need to leave, can.

...Ed, I think you're taking things a tad out of context; but you're right here. Officials have a plan. That's good. But, you can't force people to stay, just like you can't force them to leave in an emergency. I for one, don't want to stay anywhere without A/C for more than a day really, let alone a week or two.

The rule is have a personal plan and follow authorities, too. My plan exceeds theirs. My rule would be not to take chances. I'd rather hang out in a hotel room, or with friends and relatives, than subject myself to no power, no ice, no hot water...looting, etc.

I'm not saying everyone should leave in a Cat 1 or 2 storm; but I am saying "pay attention" and have a good "plan." I feel that's what you mean, too! The first post simply stated that a Cat 1 or 2 storm could be as serious as a Cat 3 or 4 ordinarily. Thanks, much respect.
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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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