Opinion: Hurricane Otis is a warning of what warming oceans are doing to storms
Hurricane Otis – which killed at least 48 people after hitting Mexico’s southern coast in October – adds to a devastating hurricane season that has battered the Atlantic and eastern Pacific basins. The Atlantic has had a particularly busy year. I’ve watched the likes of not only Idalia and Lee, but… 17 other named storms So far, the total is well above average 14 named storms per seasonwhich usually lasts from June until November.
Four of the year’s biggest storms hit a wide range of locations: Hillary made landfall on the Baja Peninsula before passing California and Nevada; Otis landed at Acapulco; Idalia affected the southeastern United States. Lee reached New England and Canada. Runoff from Hillary temporarily formed a salt lake in Death Valley, and The wind from Idalia brought flamingos As far north as Ohio and Pennsylvania. But all of these storms also had a striking similarity: They intensified unusually quickly as they moved over exceptionally warm waters.
Hurricanes require certain conditions to form and thrive. One of the most important conditions is warm ocean water, which is a critical source of fuel for strengthening hurricanes. They allow warm, moist air to rise rapidly through the atmosphere, where this energy is translated into violent thunderstorm activity. Hurricanes need a water temperature of at least 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit; The ocean waters that Hillary, Idalia, Lee, and Otis traveled through were much warmer — about 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
As humans heat the planet by burning fossil fuels, the possibility of extremely warm ocean waters increases: 90% of excess heat is caused by human activity It has gone into our oceans. As the rate of warming of our oceans accelerates – on average, Ocean surface temperatures rose By about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the period 2011-2020 compared to the period 1850-1900. About two-thirds of this warming has occurred in the past four decades alone.
Warm ocean water is like caffeine in a storm: When temperatures are that warm, it’s like adding an extra shot of caffeine to your morning espresso. Therefore, as ocean surface temperatures rise, it stands to reason that hurricanes will strengthen more quickly.
In a paper published last month, my research It shows that over the past 50 years, this is exactly what we see in the Atlantic Ocean. The fastest rates at which Atlantic hurricanes intensify — such as Hurricane Lee’s peak sustained winds of more than 90 mph in just 24 hours — increased significantly in the modern era of 2001-2020 compared to the previous era of 1971-1990. On average, the speed at which Atlantic hurricanes intensify has increased by more than 25% in the modern era compared to the historical era. It is also just as likely that a hurricane could strengthen by at least 57 mph in just 24 hours as it was likely that a historic hurricane could strengthen that much in 36 hours.
It also found that the likelihood of modern Atlantic hurricanes intensifying from a small storm (Category 1 or weaker) to a potentially destructive major hurricane (Category 3 or stronger) within 24 hours has doubled compared to the same historical era. The chance of a storm with this type of jump occurring in just 12 hours is more than three times that of a storm. Statistics indicate that these changes would have been impossible if environmental conditions had not changed since historical times.
Although my research focused on the Atlantic, it is not unreasonable to expect similar changes elsewhere. In fact, these findings turned out to be tragically prophetic when, six days after publication, Hurricane Otis shocked almost everyone when it transformed from a tropical storm into a hurricane. Category 5 hurricane In just over 12 hours before making landfall in Acapulco.
The hurricanes that have intensified dramatically along the Atlantic and eastern Pacific coasts this year, combined with evidence that this type of force is becoming more common, should serve as a critical warning.
We’re already seeing storms intensify at accelerating rates looking at the data and at events like Lee and Otis, which nearly broke records with the speed at which they intensified. As we saw well with Otis, hurricanes that intensify quickly are often difficult to predict and plan for. Sudden changes may require various protective measures, such as evacuating certain neighborhoods. This means we really have to start improving preparedness and planning in vulnerable coastal communities.
We also know that the rate at which hurricanes intensify has only actually increased in the past 50 years – over a period of significant increases in ocean temperatures due to human-induced global warming. Without major changes in our behavior, including a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, this trend is likely to continue, or even worsen, in the future.
When it comes to a warming planet, we know we’re the cause — which means we can be the solution, too. It is up to us to ensure a sustainable future for coastal communities that are already under threat.
Andra Garner is an assistant professor and climate scientist in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rowan University in New Jersey.