How hurricanes and climate change might be related
Research has long been concerned with the question: Can extreme weather events be linked to climate change? Attribution research now shows that climate change is causing more droughts. This also means more floods and forest fires are likely.
Hurricanes are apparently no exception. Scientists have found that increased temperatures lead to stronger and less predictable storms. This is worrying because tropical cyclones are already among the deadliest and most destructive extreme weather events in the world. In the United States alone, three hurricanes in 2022 caused damage totaling over $1 billion each. In a warming world, these damage amounts are expected to increase.
However, the connection between climate change and hurricanes is more complicated than many people realize. In the following FAQ, we have summarized what is known to science so far – and what to expect from the upcoming storms as Hurricane Idalia hits the Florida coast.
Are hurricanes really more common?
It may feel like there are many more storms today than in the past, but we don’t know for sure yet.
This is partly because the historical record is limited and there is little reliable data older than a few decades, says Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at MIT. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about how the frequency of tropical cyclones (the generic term for storms called hurricanes, cyclones or typhoons) changes over time.
The best existing data comes from the North Atlantic region, says Emanuel. According to this, there actually seem to be more hurricanes than before. Globally, however, some studies suggest that the total number of tropical cyclones has actually declined in recent decades.
Scientists therefore do not agree on whether so-called cyclogenesis, i.e. the formation of storms in the atmosphere, has changed over time and whether it could be influenced by climate change in the future. However, some climate models suggest that climate change will increase the total number of storms that form, while others suggest the opposite, says Karthik Balaguru, a climate and data scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Are the hurricanes getting stronger?
This can be answered in the affirmative. Globally, hurricanes have become stronger on average over the past four decades – and based on what we know about climate change, that trend is likely to continue, says Emanuel. In one study, researchers examined satellite images from 1979 to 2017 and found that more and more storms were reaching major hurricane status, meaning they had wind speeds of over 110 miles per hour.
This trend toward stronger storms is consistent with theoretical research by Emanuel and other climate scientists in the 1980s, who predicted that warming oceans would cause stronger hurricanes. Warmer water gives storms more energy, resulting in higher wind speeds. As temperatures rise, “the probability will shift toward these stronger events,” says Phil Klotzbach, an atmospheric scientist and hurricane forecasting expert at Colorado State University. This is consistent with other recent research that suggests North Atlantic hurricanes are strengthening more quickly, meaning they are gaining wind speed as they pass through the warming ocean.
The trend is most noticeable in the North Atlantic, but could also occur worldwide. Another recent study found that the number of storms that intensify very quickly is increasing worldwide, with wind speeds increasing by over 100 kilometers per hour or more in 24 hours. Storms that intensify quickly – especially near the coast – can be particularly dangerous because people don’t have much time to prepare or get to safety.
How else does climate change affect hurricanes?
According to researcher Karthik Balaguru, there are other impacts of climate change that could influence hurricanes in the future. Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, making storm surges and coastal flooding more likely and then causing more damage. Plus, warmer air can hold more water, meaning more rain during storms, as climate change drives up global temperatures. All of this could lead to more flooding during hurricanes.
There are other, lesser-known variants of how climate change could affect storms in the future. Storms are considered more likely to subside in one location and bring more rain to a concentrated area, as happened with Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017. Some studies also link this effect to climate change, although the connection is not as certain as others, Balaguru says. Regional changes in atmospheric circulation could also affect which areas are more likely to be hit by storms.
So although hurricanes are becoming increasingly stronger and more volatile, our ability to predict their path and strength has fortunately improved in recent years. Advances in supercomputers and AI forecasting could therefore help authorities better predict storms and give people more time to respond. But these advances only help us so far. The warnings are getting better and better, but there are limits, says MIT researcher Emanuel.
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