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As the 2020 hurricane season draws to a close, scientists are reflecting on the devastating records set by this year’s storms. 2020 had the most named storms ever recorded, ten of which were classified as “rapidly intensifying,” a record which occurred only in two other years, 1995 and 2010. Experts say the record-setting season was fueled mainly by rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change that increased the number, strength, and volatility of this season’s hurricanes.
Why This Matters: The 2020 hurricane season is particularly foreboding for the environment. The steep increase in hurricanes and damages caused by them signal an accelerating march toward climate disaster. Recently, scientists found that hurricanes are lingering longer and moving further inland and are predicting that cities like Atlanta could begin to see the full effect of hurricanes in the coming years.
Additionally, coastal cities can expect to be hit multiple times per season in the future; this year, Louisiana was hit by 5 different storms. Experts say that hurricane season is also beginning earlier, especially because bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico, are staying warmer year-round.
Predicting the Future: Despite factoring climate change into predictive models this year, hurricane forecasters say that predicting “rapid intensification” remains a major challenge.
Climatologist Michael Mann defines “rapid intensification” as a 35-mph or greater increase in wind speed over 24 hours.
“It is something we’ve seen a lot of in recent years, and often catches us by surprise because the models don’t do a good job predicting it,” he said, “that’s problematic because it gives us little advance warning of potentially catastrophic increases in intensity of land-falling storms.”
Three of this season’s storms, Iota, Delta, and Eta, intensified by 100mph in just 36 hours, which researchers say has only been recorded four times in the last 150 years.
Clearing the Clouds: This increasing phenomenon, however, brings with it new clarity. Until recently, attribution science or the determination of which disaster events were a result of climate change and which accounted for natural variability was quite nascent. Due to this year’s extreme weather events, Mann says that climate change has “risen well out of the noise.” He predicts that storms will continue to get stronger and more destructive as climate change continues,
“We expect a roughly 7 percent increase in maximum wind speed of the strongest storms for each 1 degree Fahrenheit of warming. Since intensity increases as the 3rd power of the windspeed, that corresponds to a 23 percent increase in the destructive potential, a signal that’s large enough to see.”
Researchers still lack enough understanding of storm systems to predict just how much climate change is responsible for new storm behavior, but climate researcher Jhordanne Jones says observation is where they learn the most. “Each hurricane is a unique event and allows us to incorporate different possibilities into model forecasts,” he said, “observations also help us to verify whether or not our models were on track and helps us interpret what aspects of the environment led to differences in hurricane activity.”
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