Environment

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NOAA/AP

New Study Suggests Future Hurricanes Will Be Stronger

September 05, 2008 07:53 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
Florida State University researchers say global warming could increase the devastating effect of tropical cyclones.

Will Hurricanes Get Worse?

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Florida State University geography professor James Elsner and researchers Thomas Jagger and James Kossin have completed a study suggesting that warmer ocean temperatures are contributing to stronger tropical cyclones (a general term describing hurricanes and typhoons).

Using statistical analyses and several years of data, the researchers found that maximum wind speeds per cyclone increased with higher ocean surface temperatures, which are possibly related to global warming. Whether hurricanes will continue to increase in number and intensity is still up for debate, however.

The researchers’ conclusions are considered controversial because data on ocean storms occurring before 1970 is limited, which could make it hard to decipher any trends. Jagger told the Tallahassee Democrat that he and his colleagues haven’t found indications that there will be more storms, but that serious storms will be more frequent.

“It is tempting to look at the line-up of storms in the Atlantic (Hanna, Ike, Josephine) and, in the name of everything green, blame climate change for this state of affairs,” Amanda Ripley of Time Magazine writes. While Ripley agrees that disasters are becoming more common, she argues that it’s because of where people live, not only how they live. For example, the population of Florida’s Miami-Dade County has increased from 150,000 in the 1930s to 2.4 million today. Thus, a hurricane there today will have more damaging effects.

“There has been no trend in the number or intensity of storms at landfall since 1900,” Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, told Time. “The storms themselves haven’t changed.”

In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that there would be 12–16 named storms this year. Of them, forecasters expect six to nine hurricanes, including two to five major hurricanes.

Forecasters have been criticized recently for overestimating the number of hurricanes, so this year the NOAA used percentages for the first time: scientists say there’s a 60–70 percent chance their prediction for this season is accurate.

Related Topic: How hurricanes form

All hurricanes start at a “tropical disturbance,” an area of low atmospheric pressure over the tropical Atlantic Ocean (near the Caribbean islands). As warmth and moisture from the ocean add to those conditions, a thunderstorm is created. Thunderstorms that continue with 40 mile-per-hour winds are upgraded to a “tropical storm.” It’s possible for a tropical storm to continue pulling in warm, humid air from the lower atmosphere, while expelling cool, dry air into the upper atmosphere. As the storm continues collecting and releasing heat, a hurricane can result.

Reference: Severe weather; home protection

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