This is a NASA image from the start of hurricane season, showing the sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and especially in the main hurricane development region.
I got the image from this great analysis over at the WWF Climate Blog, which is mainly devoted to summarizing a recent congressional briefing on why we very likely have a really bad hurricane year to look forward to.
Some observations that emerged from that meeting:
* We’ve never had a pre-season forecast of 23 storms before. Let’s hope that is an overshot, rather than an undershot.
* The Atlantic is even hotter than it was before the devastating 2005 hurricane season.
* Oh yeah, and there’s oil out there. (The title of the briefing was “Hurricanes and Oil Will Mix: Managing Risk Now.”)
How much of the Atlantic’s current, alarming temperature has to do with global warming? Well, listen to Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research:
When asked about the degree to which rising greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere were contributing to the trend of rising sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean, Holland said the temperatures could not be explained without accounting for rising GHG concentrations. He said that while some researchers thought the rising GHG levels might account for 60-80% of the temperature anomaly, he estimated that about half was due to rising GHGs.
I get the feeling we may have a summer for climate change coming, just as 2005 was, and just as 1988 was.
I have to say, I am a bit staggered by just how severe the forecast from NOAA is for the Atlantic hurricane year 2010. We know these predictions aren’t always spot on, but they get increasingly accurate as the season nears–and now just before June 1, NOAA is calling for 14-23 named storms, 8-14 hurricanes, and 3-7 major hurricanes.
In short, they’re calling for a year that would almost rival the worst year on record–2005–the year of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.
And of course, it hardly helps matters that we have tons of oil in the Gulf this year. If NOAA’s forecast is really correct, it’s hard for me to imagine that there won’t be a number of storms that get into the Gulf and threaten to disrupt clean up operations and/or to drive oil all over the place.
This makes success in BP’s ongoing “top kill” effort pretty crucial. If they can’t get the spill stopped now, and it keeps pouring out oil well into the summer, then there will be hurricanes to contend with–and in a bad year, like 2005, the really strong ones can even come in July.
For more on what would happen if a strong hurricane hit the oil slick, check out my Slate.com piece on this subject.
This just in: Michael Mann of Penn State (working with grad student Michael Kozar) has also just released a seasonal hurricane forecast–and it is even scarier. Due to the strong heat anomaly in the Atlantic’s “main development region” for hurricanes, Mann and Kozar forecast between 19 and 28 storms this season!
I’ve just done a Slate piece elaborating on what would happen if a hurricane hit the Gulf oil slick, based upon further research and interviewing. Here’s an excerpt:
Much depends on the angle at which the storm crosses the slick. In the Northern Hemisphere, hurricanes rotate counterclockwise, with the largest storm surge occurring where the winds blow in the direction the storm as a whole is traveling—that’s in front of the eye and off to the right. (Meteorologists worry over a hurricane’s dangerous “right-front quadrant.”) So if a powerful storm approached the slick from the southwest, say, its most potent winds would push the oil forward, instead of sweeping it off to the side and out of the storm’s path. If the storm then plowed into the Gulf Coast, you’d expect an oily landfall.
And how would the slick affect the storm? Not much if at all:
…by the time winds reach hurricane force (greater than 74 mph), they cause so much ocean mixing that any oil slick on the surface would be driven down into the depths and generally broken up. MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel has tested the phenomenon on a small scale using an enclosed tank, half filled with water, with an air rotor at the top capable of generating hurricane force winds. When the rotor turned at high speeds, the surface of the water was torn apart, and the scientists observed no difference in the amount of evaporation that occurred with or without an oily surface film.
It’s even possible that an oil slick could make a powerful hurricane a little stronger. Oil is darker than water, and so it absorbs more sunlight while also blocking evaporation from the sea surface. That means the spill could be trapping heat in one part of the ocean. If a storm passed over and churned up the surface of the water, that potential hurricane energy might then be released.
You can read the full Slate piece here.
Update 9 ET Saturday: This piece is the second most emailed and third most read item on Slate.com right now. Apparently people want to know….
The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1, and forecasts suggest an above average year. And as we all know, Atlantic hurricanes are deadliest when they get into the warm Gulf of Mexico. It is almost like a hurricane jumping on a trampoline. They can go from Category 1 to Category 5 in 24 hours in such a favorable environment.
But this year, as we also know, there is something different about the Gulf. It is full of oil.
What are the implications of this fact for hurricanes? And conversely, what might a powerful hurricane do to the oil spill if it were to run across it?
This is a topic I’ve been thinking about, and I don’t have definitive answers yet. I’d like to do more research and interview some experts–but for now, let’s take a rough and dirty approach to the issue, based on what is already out there.
And let’s tackle the first question first: What would an oil slick do to a hurricane? According to storm ace Jeff Masters, the answer is not very much.
Here’s what Masters is thinking. It’s certainly true that oil on the surface of the ocean could inhibit a hurricane’s access to its fuel source–the warm seawater whose evaporation drives the hurricane heat engine. However, hurricanes are vastly larger than the oil slick, which limits the potential effect of this phenomenon. Read More
Mooney writes: “In order to lampoon the view that hurricanes are worsening, [Fumento] relies on this year’s weather in just one hurricane basin of the world–it was a quiet hurricane season in the Atlantic (although busy in the Pacific).”
From my article, paragraph three:
“This year ended quietly with the fewest storms since 1997, and for the first time since 2006 no hurricanes even made landfall in the United States according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Indeed, hurricane activity is near a 30-year low.”
Chris, you’re just plain dishonest.
Here is his article. Try as I might, I don’t find anything at all like that in paragraph 3. I find bits and pieces of it elsewhere, but nowhere the striking claim that hurricane activity is “near a 30-year low.” Read More
Apparently I am one of those alarmists who, following the 2005 hurricane season in the Atlantic, hyped the connection between hurricanes and global warming.
Only…I didn’t. In my book on this subject, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, I actually criticized those who had oversold this connection. That’s probably why the American Meteorological Society called Storm World “an accurate and comprehensive overview of the evolving debate on the impacts of global warming on hurricanes that illustrates the complexities of this significant scientific problem.”
So how then can rightwing science pundit Michael Fumento write the following?
…[in] 2005 [the] the coincidence of two major hurricanes striking the U.S. and causing lots of damage, Katrina and Rita, led to a storm of allegations that global warming was causing cyclones to rise up in revenge against man. Most notable was far-left science writer Chris Mooney’s Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, which Amazon.com informs us is “bargain-priced” and probably for good reason. Mooney not coincidentally is also author of “The Republican War on Science” and “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.” Perhaps it threatens our future, but in the meantime it’s very good for his wallet.
Actually, I’m sure I would have sold more books by hyping the hurricane-climate connection in Storm World, rather than painting it in a nuanced way. But I found that I couldn’t. Because the science was complex and uncertain, as a nonscientist I felt I was best equipped to tell the real story of hurricane scientists at work and in conflict in a high stakes environment–rather than taking a polemical stand on a live scientific issue that I might not be able to defend later.
The irony here is huge, because even as he incorrectly criticizes me for overhyping science, Fumento himself engages in seriously flawed scientific reasoning. In order to lampoon the view that hurricanes are worsening, he relies on this year’s weather in just one hurricane basin of the world–it was a quiet hurricane season in the Atlantic (although busy in the Pacific). The problem is that weather is not climate, and if global warming’s impact on Atlantic hurricanes is to be detected, it will be through the manifestation of multi-decadal trends in a noisy record–rather than in the evidence presented by any one particular year. That’s especially so for an El Nino year like 2009; these tend to suppress Atlantic hurricanes (and rile up Pacific ones).
The importance of El Nino is one of the many complexities of hurricane-climate research, and one of many factors that makes it difficult to detect climate driven trends in hurricanes–as carefully explained in Storm World.