Is rapid intensification a new development?

We’ve known about this effect on hurricanes for years, but it’s taken quite a while for meteorologists to pay more attention to the upper ocean heat content and its impact on the rapid intensification of hurricanes.

In 1995, Hurricane Opal was a minimal tropical storm meandering in the Gulf. Unknown to forecasters at the time, a big warm eddy was in the center of the Gulf, moving about as fast as Miami traffic in rush hour, with warm water down to about 150 meters. All the meteorologists saw in the satellite data was the surface temperature, so when Opal rapidly intensified on its way to eventually hitting the Florida Panhandle, it caught a lot of people by surprise.

Today, meteorologists keep a closer eye on where the pools of heat are. Not every storm has all the right conditions. Too much wind shear can tear apart a storm, but when the atmospheric conditions and ocean temperatures are extremely favorable, you can get this big change.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both in 2005, had pretty much the same signature as Ida. They went over a warm eddy that was just getting ready to be shed form the Loop Current.

Hurricane Michael in 2018 didn’t go over an eddy, but it went over the eddy’s filament—like a tail—as it was separating from the Loop Current. Each of these storms intensified quickly before hitting land.

Of course, these warm eddies are most common right during hurricane season. You’ll occasionally see this happen along the Atlantic Coast, too, but the Gulf of Mexico and the Northwest Caribbean are more contained, so when a storm intensifies there, someone is going to get hit. When it intensifies close to the coast, like Ida did, it can be disastrous for coastal inhabitants.

What does climate change have to do with it?

We know global warming is occurring, and we know that surface temperatures are warming in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. When it comes to rapid intensification, however, my view is that a lot of these thermodynamics are local. How great a role global warming plays remains unclear.

This is an area of fertile research. We have been monitoring the Gulf’s ocean heat content for more than two decades. By comparing the temperature measurements we took during Ida and other hurricanes with satellite and other atmospheric data, scientists can better understand the role the oceans play in the rapid intensification of storms.

Once we have these profiles, scientists can fine-tune the computer model simulations used in forecasts to provide more detailed and accurate warnings in the futures.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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