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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1989. KoritheMan
10:19 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Well, that was 2005, and this is 2007. 2007 is going to be a more active Cape Verde year than 2005 IMO.

actually a lot of African waves weaken for a couple days as they move over water, because the water is too cool for them to develop well--they have to reorganize and that takes time.

Both points are true. The cooler water thing is why waves never immediately develop off Africa until mid-August or so.
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1987. KoritheMan
10:17 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
i personally have never used the term troll on anyone... heck im not sure what it means, but i do know that earlier it seemed everyone was calling EYE a troll for not agreeing anything would be forming any time soon

It's not that I called him a troll for not agreeing... It's the fact that he never stopped saying the same thing. It's like he acts like he KNOWS the hurricane season is going to go by his words.
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1981. tornadodude
3:09 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
On this day in weather history...
1981 -- A downpour dropped 5.70" of rain on Goshen. A tornado struck Orland, Indiana at 7:30am.

1992 -- A girl and her grandmother were killed when the tree they were standing under was struck by lightning in Lincoln County, Kentucky.

1993 -- Pueblo, Colorado set a record low of 52 and a record high of 101.

1995 -- A man on an island in the Wabash River was struck and killed by lightning in Wabash, Indiana.

1997 -- A barn was blown down by a storm near Townley (Allen County IN). Power lines were blown down near Wabash and trees were felled at Cloverdale (Putnam County).

1999 -- A thunderstorm blew trees and power lines down around New Haven and Monroeville (Allen County, Indiana).

2002 -- Thunderstorms blew power lines down seven miles east-southeast of Hartford City and felled trees three miles south of South Bend.

nws
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1979. CosmicEvents
3:04 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
Personally, I like reading the opinions of all who post here, whether I agree or disagree. You don't gain much by reading only those posts that you agree with. Though some may be more enthusiastic than I about seeing destructive cyclones, we all share an interest in tropical cyclones.
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1977. benirica
3:05 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
Thundercloud... wasnt that the guy doing the survey that need our first and last name, email?
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1976. PensacolaBuoy
10:04 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
IKE,

The west coast Braves games are killin' me! I was up until 3 a.m. last night as the Braves game went to 13 innings. Tonight I'm watching that gulf coast blob, which looks to me like it's heading more toward Louisiana than Texas.
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1974. Tazmanian
8:00 PM PDT on July 25, 2007
yes i agree

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1973. MrNiceville
2:59 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
Well - so much for that - guess what just made the 1030 GTWO? Crud, Ike - they indicate NW movement...
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1971. IKE
9:58 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Posted By: MrNiceville at 9:55 PM CDT on July 25, 2007.
Well, time for this old guy to get some rack time...


Later...I'm fixin to watch the end of the Braves/Giants MLB game on TBS.
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1970. IKE
9:56 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Posted By: benirica at 9:54 PM CDT on July 25, 2007.
k, just pointing out that everyone kept calling him a troll.
I understand people getting mad... I mean most of the people here agree on watching an area and are entertained by it... whats the point in comming here to provoke? If you dont agree you can just leave the blog...


I agree...I wouldn't come on here to provoke others.
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1969. MrNiceville
2:50 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
Well, time for this old guy to get some rack time...

Ike - I'll check in the morning on our "little friend" when my "little friend" wakes me up at 5:45 to go outside. I'm not convinced it will develop, but the last visible frame APPEARS (note I didn't say DOES) to describe a windfield with some rotation (it may just be coincidental shear - I'm a rank amateur at this).
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1968. benirica
2:52 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
k, just pointing out that everyone kept calling him a troll.
I understand people getting mad... I mean most of the people here agree on watching an area and are entertained by it... whats the point in comming here to provoke? If you dont agree you can just leave the blog...
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1967. IKE
9:50 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
And benirica...he wasn't being a troll. He was arguing against development. Problem is...he kept arguing the same point.
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1966. benirica
2:48 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
i personally have never used the term troll on anyone... heck im not sure what it means, but i do know that earlier it seemed everyone was calling EYE a troll for not agreeing anything would be forming any time soon
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1965. MrNiceville
2:48 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
So a troll is a blogger with a bludgeoning opinion. I can buy that - civility never goes out of style...
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1964. moonlightcowboy
2:47 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
Hey, Pottery! How's it going?

...the train is steaming up I think! I know you're prepared. What do you think of the CATL blob?
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1962. benirica
2:46 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
SUPERSTORM on the Discovery Channel... by the commercial it sounds that it talks about science trying to control weather and it going wrong and they actually make the hurricane stronger and it heads right into New York City... may be interesting.
There is also another episode that they will talk about Controling Weather.
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1961. IKE
9:47 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Just because they disagree doesn't make them a troll...

People get pissed on here. I try to stay out of it.
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1960. benirica
2:44 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
sometimes people get on everyone's bad side when they dont agree that something will develop and everyone wants it to develop...
unfortunately the thing is these people make their comments heard and provoke anger and well ... they get banned for being trolls ""
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1959. MrNiceville
2:42 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
Why did thundercloud get banned?

The only reason I ask is that he wumailed me and asked me to post a graph showing pressure not dropping in BoC earlier today.

I'm not inclined to do any favors for folks that are banned...
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1956. pottery2
10:38 PM AST on July 25, 2007
Consider yourself Commended, Tropic......... LOL
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1955. IKE
9:39 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Posted By: texascanecaster1 at 9:38 PM CDT on July 25, 2007.
dang. my comments must suck... is average good ike?


I would think so.
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1954. MrNiceville
2:39 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
Only in our high schools, cane!
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1952. MrNiceville
2:34 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
Ike - thank goodness! I was worried that I was "below average"...

Take a look at the 72hr shear forecast. It looks mildly favorable in the BoC and western GOM. Thank goodness, though - they're forecasting a nice big shear, just south of us.

Bobby McFarren time - don't worry - be happy!
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1950. Tazmanian
7:36 PM PDT on July 25, 2007
your welcome IKE
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1948. IKE
9:36 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Posted By: texascanecaster1 at 9:35 PM CDT on July 25, 2007.
ok thanks ike very helpful. By the by what is my rating?


You're hidden on..."show average".
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1944. IKE
9:34 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Thanks TAZ...I was wrong.
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1943. IKE
9:34 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Posted By: MrNiceville at 9:33 PM CDT on July 25, 2007.
Ike! Tell me that I haven't dissapeared from your screen! Oh, the humanity....


Nope...I see yours! LOL!
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1942. CJ5
2:30 AM GMT on July 26, 2007
lol, StormKat.....shush..he is hovering overhead in a black helicopter. I hope his tin foil hat doesn't blow off. Bwhahahhahhaa...

I suspect for his tale tales to be true then all of the data available to everyone of us is fake and distorted too...you know, part of the NHC conspiracy. Whatever.
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1941. IKE
9:32 PM CDT on July 25, 2007
Posted By: MrNiceville at 9:27 PM CDT on July 25, 2007.
I just reviewed the last frame of the four spectra. I'm not inclined to say that it's going to amount to anything - 20kts to 30kts shear right now should supress any development. Otherwise - all other factors are there.


Looks like the high down on the Yucatan is centering further north each updated CIMSS shear map...the 30 knot shear is shrinking in size in the northern GOM. Still plenty of 20 knot shear out into the GOM...maybe that shear will let up as the high moves north.
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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.