The impact of global warming on the intensity and scope of hurricanes is an ever-evolving field of study, and the evidence thus far paints a dangerous picture.
In the wake of powerful back-to-back hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, scientists are pointing to climate change as the reason behind the storms' record-breaking intensity. As they continue to study natural disasters and the escalating weather, there is an embryo of evidence suggesting that hurricanes could spin into historically unaffected areas over the next few decades.
The Pacific Standard reports that climate scientists are concerned that areas of Western Europe and regions along the Northeast and West coast of the United States could begin to experience hurricanes in the future due to trends in global warming.
Since the end of the 19th century, human pollution has been steadily contributing to climate change, and as the seas heat up, scientists have noticed that hurricanes are headed due north.
"As we've seen, tropical cyclones are coming farther north than ever before because warm seas are expanding, which arguably has contributed to sending them on more northern paths," said researcher with Climate Analytics Carl-Friedrich Schleussner.
A 2014 study conducted by James Kossin and Gabriel Vecchi of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at Massachusett's Institute of Technology, found that hurricanes may become threats to new areas due to "a pronounced poleward migration in the average latitude at which tropical cyclones have achieved their lifetime-maximum intensity over the past 30 years.”
The researchers noted that hurricanes were beginning to move away from tropical areas, and linked this phenomenon to changes in the atmosphere caused by humans.
Other characteristics of hurricanes could morph with climate change as well, The Washington Post speculated. Given that hurricanes rely on mass bodies of water for their power, it's far from unreasonable to predict that the ever-warming seas will drastically alter the current storm status quo, potentially within millennials' lifetimes.
Journalist Chris Mooney put on his wannabe meteorologist hat and suggested that climate change could lead to hurricanes occurring outside their normal seasons of summer and fall. Although scientific evidence indicating such is currently vague, he pointed out that the Atlantic tropical storm Arlene was spotted in April, alarmingly out of season.
Furthermore, the possibility of global warming leading to larger, more intense storms is something Mooney and others see as worth investigating further after evaluating Harvey and Irma. Harvey rapidly intensified as it approached land, an incredibly dangerous trait also exhibited by other hurricanes within the last 20 years, like Wilma in 2005 and Patricia in 2015.
Emanuel recently published a study linking warming seas to rapid intensification in hurricanes, a connection he discovered after simulating thousands of hurricanes in changing climates through a computer program.
When faced with the immense power of Hurricane Sandy, Weather Underground meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters stated that he saw a potential link between temperature change and the size of these natural disasters.
"We have pushed our climate system to a fundamentally new, higher-energy state where more heat and moisture is available to power stronger storms," he wrote in a 2012 article, "and we should be concerned about the possibility that Hurricane Sandy’s freak size and power were partially due to human-caused climate change.”
Moving forward, scientists and their funders would be smart to push more nuanced and conclusive studies on the impact of climate on tropical storms and hurricanes. The evidence thus far, although currently scattered, is compelling and marks a new scientific frontier to explore not just out of ambitious curiosity, but because human lives may very well depend on it.
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