How global warming changes superstorms

Superstorms have been increasing in frequency in the last two decades.

Devastation after Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Credit: Creative Commons
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The U.S. has experienced 70 major hurricanes in the past 20 years. Many experts believe global warming could be causing superstorms to occur more frequently, but study results are too premature to make that call.

Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma occurred within weeks of each other and scientists are trying to figure out how these two major hurricanes occurred so close together. To discover new trends, experts say we must first look at the past.

A team of 300 experts compiled The National Climate Assessment in 2014, summarizing the impact of global warming and climate change on superstorms. Some of the main key points they highlighted were:

  • Since the 1950s, the frequency and intensity of storms have increased, specifically winter storms, thunderstorms and hurricanes.
  • Since the early 1980s, the intensity, frequency and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes have increased.
  • Sea level is projected to rise 1-4 feet by the year 2100.

These are similar findings to what Research Meteorologist, Thomas Knutson, has been studying. Knutson has been working in The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA)  Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory since 1990. He studies global warming detection and hurricanes.

NOAA and superstorm trends

NOAA is an agency based in Washington, D.C., where experts study the conditions between the ocean and the atmosphere. Over the years, NOAA has collected data on the frequency of superstorms and hurricanes, but distinguishing the two can often get confusing.

Knutson described a superstorm as a storm with “unusual intensity and large accumulated rain fall” but also “always in their own way creating impacts through some relatively unusual behavior.” Superstorms can be hurricanes, but not every hurricane is a superstorm.

Knutson said he’s a little surprised by the hurricane action this season, but history has shown hurricanes can occur close together. In the top 10 deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, there were two major hurricanes that both occurred in 1893.

Data from NOAA

Hurricane Irma is the fifth hurriane to occur during this season. It is classified as the second most powerful storm of 2017. Scientists say that climate change could have intensified Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, causing them to occur closer together.

Current research conducted by scientists at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory on Global Warming and Hurricanes shows a small upward trend in the frequency of tropical and hurricanes, in correlation with rising sea levels. Though the evidence doesn’t give much clarity, the lab created a new way to study global warming and superstorms.

NOAA experts have modeled simulations of current hurricane activity mixed with greenhouse warming influences and future climate change projections. In these simulations, they discovered that storms have higher rainfall rates and there’s a small increase in the number of storms that do occur during hurricane season.

Robert Tuleya, researcher at the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, predicted in a 2004 study that if global warming continues to affect the climate and temperature, by 2100, there will be a two to 11 percent increase in tropical cyclone intensity and a 20 percent increase in near-storm rainfall rates. They also discovered that in warmer climates, hurricanes will be more intense and have higher rainfall rates.

“We cannot at present detect a long-term trend in any Atlantic hurricane metric,” Knutson said.

Though it is clear that global warming is impacting superstorms, scientists say that the correlation between the two can’t be officially proven until later in the century after they have been able to study greenhouse warming more.

FEMA fights on multiple fronts

As FEMA continues to aid victims from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, they are also prepping for the aftermath of the upcoming Hurricane Jose, Hurricane Maria and Tropical Storm Lee.

There have been questions about FEMA’s ability to aid everyone affected by natural disasters. One way that FEMA can keep up is through the assistance from volunteers and various partnerships with organizations such as American Red Cross, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and the Salvation Army.

Currently, in disaster recovery efforts in Texas and Florida, FEMA has had success teaming up with faith groups and churches who are volunteering, opening their facilities and turning them into shelters.

FEMA also offers individual disaster assistance through an application process where a victim could potentially receive a grant to aid them in their recovery.

Stay up to date on Hurricane Jose, Hurricane Maria and Tropical Storm Lee here.

About Michelai Graham 2 Articles
I’m currently a graduate journalism student at American University focusing in investigative reporting. I also work at the Urban Institute as a Digital Production Specialist, where I maintain the website and produce weekly newsletters. In the past, I interned with the Lansing City Pulse as a reporter and photographer and with Such Video as a social media coordinator.

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