Gonu, Monica, Wilma, Ioke….Hurricane Intensity Records Just Keep Breaking

By Chris Mooney | June 6, 2007 8:00 am

gonu_amo_2007155.jpg

Wikipedia now has a very informative entry on Cyclone Gonu, which has been by far the most surprising and frightening hurricane of 2007 thus far. Gonu’s apparent records include:

1. Strongest storm ever recorded in the Arabian Sea (140 knot winds, making Gonu the first recorded Category 5 storm in this region).

2. Tied for strongest storm in the North Indian basin (Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal).

3. Lowest sea level pressure in the Arabian sea (this is my guess, and it will be estimated from satellite images rather than directly measured; but it stands to reason that Gonu, by far the most intense storm recorded in the Arabian Sea, will also have the lowest pressure recorded).

4. First/strongest recorded hurricane to hit Oman/Gulf of Oman/Iran (we’ll have to see where Gonu ends up, but these are all apparent firsts).

This is all pretty incredible; but I want to focus on intensity in particular. You see, across the globe hurricane intensity records just keep toppling in recent years, with Gonu being merely the latest example. One cannot say definitively that global warming is causing this–better measurements and monitoring of storm intensities could also conceivably explain what we’re seeing. Still, it’s hard not to notice that Gonu closely follows:

1. 2004′s Cyclone Catarina, the first known hurricane to form in the South Atlantic and strike Brazil (and thus by definition the strongest recorded storm in this region).

2. 2005′s Hurricane Wilma, which at 882 millibars had the lowest central pressure ever measured in the Atlantic basin.

3. 2006′s Cyclone Monica, apparently the strongest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.

4. 2006′s Hurricane/Typhoon Ioke, the longest lived storm at Category 4 intensity or higher, and most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Central Pacific.

Is this all coincidence? In many parts of the world our historical tropical cyclone records are extremely poor…could it be that if they were better, many of these “records” would disappear?

I don’t know. I can’t say one way or another. I can only cite the records and say that they are certainly consistent with the idea that global warming is causing an intensification of the average hurricane.

Comments (8)

  1. Ted

    I can only cite the records and say that they are certainly consistent with the idea that global warming is causing an intensification of the average hurricane.

    Slightly tangential, but why don’t we have a standardized measurement that can be added to the weather reports (most people check the weather routinely – temp, humidity, etc). For example, in many places, smog awareness is helped by a smog index that appears on the daily morning shows. Over time, people associate smog with traffic congestion and other industrial pollutants and either choose alternatives or settle in, but at least they’re aware of it and it provides the background to action.

    Would it be possible to add some sort of regional greenhouse gas index? My strategy would be to put the information out there, and put it out daily, so that it becomes as ubiquitous as the daily weather. Regional may be for a tri- state area or for a 500 mile radius, or something of that type that can indicate to voters/consumers that their local public policy may be worth tweaking. The daily (or frequent) data can be used by grassroots activists to pressure locally and then expand the pressure nationally.

    Sometimes I don’t have that much policy impact on a federal level, but I can have impact on the local level, given that I know how my region compares up to others. That gives me ideas of how not to be like the worst, and the policy strategies of the places that are the best. Since the president likes constant testing in things like NCLB, this would be a constant monitoring of progress.

    This would also be a quick way to tell how we’re doing per capita on the regional level for individual carbon footprints. It pains me to see numbers like “US contributes 22% to global greenhouses gases” when I know that my area takes care by policy initiatives to try to minimize it. This can place the pressure where it belongs.

    Of course, I would expect the US Chamber of Commerce and business interests in general to be against any such daily index or quantification.

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for the careful tone about how this fits as evidence in the question of global warming and hurricane intensity.

    However, given the way the greenhouse gas/global warming political argument has evolved, I predict you will be called an alarmist in some circles.

    I guess I’m just feeling cynical about the state of political discourse today.

  3. Alarmist or not, these kind of storms occurring on such a regular basis now is amazing. And a first ever recorded cyclone in the Gulf of Oman – now that’s literally unheard of, at least in my lifetime! Wow. It will be interesting indeed to see what the summer storm season brings.

  4. sirhcton

    Some new research, at least for the Atlantic, addressing hurricane frequency and historical trends indicates global warming may not be a factor.

    http://tinyurl.com/2dntsj

    sirhcton

  5. sirhcton,

    To clarify: The article you cite deals with number of hurricanes. This post deals with intensity.

    The science isn’t conclusive on either number or intensity, and that makes it even more important to make sure we don’t apply the study of one parameter to the interpretation of the other.

    If I recall my reading of Storm World correctly, one of the points Chris makes there is that changes in ocean surface temperature is certain to affect tropical cyclone formation in some way. But, since other factors (like wind shear) may also be changing, it is very difficult to predict how the number and intensity of such storms will be affected by global warming.

  6. It says something about the state of politics and public discourse in N America that the mainstream news coverage of Gonu seems focussed on the impact on oil infrastructure and oil prices and/or the possible link between climate change and hurricanes, rather than the many thousands of people in harm’s way.

  7. Dano

    It says something about the state of politics and public discourse in N America that the mainstream news coverage of Gonu seems focussed on the impact on oil infrastructure and oil prices

    Yes.

    This is an indicator of the tenuousness of our economy, no?

    Best,

    D

  8. Chris Mooney

    Simon,

    At least based upon early reports, it’s beginning to appear that while Gonu might have had major economic impacts, it probably caused relatively few deaths relative to what some past cyclones have done.

    I stress, again, that this is based on early reports.

    In comparison to Gonu, the many cyclones that slammed Madagascar earlier this year may have had a much greater human toll. And Typhoon Durian killed hundreds or even over a thousand late last year in the Philippines.

    Yet the U.S. media essentially ignored the Madagascan cyclones, and my sense (anecdotal) is that it also paid relatively little attention to Durian compared to the heavy focus on Gonu.

    I think that says a lot.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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