Hurricane season may be even worse in 2018 after a harrowing 2017

Flooded homes at Citrus Park in Bonita Springs, Florida on 16 September 2017, six days after Hurricane Irma. Photograph: Nicole Raucheisen/AP

The initial forecasts of an above-average season for hurricanes, beginning on 1 June, follow a punishing spate of storms last year

The US may have to brace itself for another harrowing spate of hurricanes this year, with forecasts of an active 2018 season coming amid new research that shows powerful Atlantic storms are intensifying far more rapidly than they did 30 years ago.

The peak season for Atlantic storms, which officially starts on 1 June, is set to spur as many as 18 named storms, with up to five of them developing into major hurricanes, according to separate forecasts from North Carolina State Universityand Colorado State University. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will soon provide its own 2018 hurricane predictions.

The initial forecasts of an above-average season for hurricanes follow a punishing 2017, most notable for Hurricane Harvey, which drenched large areas of Texas, Hurricane Irma’s sweep over Florida and the devastation that stubbornly lingers in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria.

These huge hurricanes brought winds of up to 185mph and lashing rains, causing hundreds of deaths, flattening homes, felling power lines and ruining roads. Combined, the three storms caused around $265bn in damage, and all ranked in the five most destructive hurricanes ever recorded.

Many communities, particularly in Puerto Rico and Texas, are still struggling to recover from last year’s hurricanes as the upcoming storm season approaches. And while the US may be spared 2017 levels of devastation this year, scientists have warned that the warming of the oceans, driven by climate change, is likely to stir greater numbers of prodigious storms in the future.

Atlantic hurricanes are intensifying far more rapidly than they did 30 years ago, according to a new study that analyzed the acceleration in wind speed of previous storms. Major hurricanes are defined by a sharp increase in speed, of at least 28mph in a 24-hour period.

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that these big hurricanes are, on average, speeding up 13mph faster in this 24-hour period than they did 30 years ago. Much of this has to do with shifts in a natural climate cycle called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.

Separate research from the National Center for Atmospheric Research suggests this natural variation will combine with escalating warming in the oceans and atmosphere, caused by the burning of fossil fuels by humans, to produce stronger hurricanes in the future. A warm ocean surface, combined with consistent wind patterns, contribute to the formation of fiercer, if not more numerous, hurricanes.

People make their way onto an I-610 overpass after being rescued from flooded homes during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, on 27 August 2017 in Houston, Texas.
People make their way onto an I-610 overpass after being rescued from flooded homes during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, on 27 August 2017 in Houston, Texas. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

In the weeks before Hurricane Harvey smashed into Texas in August last year, the Gulf of Mexico’s waters were warmer than any time on record at around 30C (86F), the NCAR research found.

“The implication is that the warmer oceans increased the risk of greater hurricane intensity and duration,” said Kevin Trenberth, an NCAR senior scientist and lead author of the study. “As climate change continues to heat the oceans, we can expect more supercharged storms like Harvey.

“While we often think of hurricanes as atmospheric phenomena, it’s clear that the oceans play a critical role and will shape future storms as the climate changes.”

Hurricanes act as a sort of relief valve for hot tropical oceans, funneling heat away into the atmosphere. Persistent warmth in the oceans, however, adds further energy to hurricanes and risks causing worse damage to life and property when these storms make landfall.

Faced with the prospect of supercharged hurricanes, as various other burgeoning climate change-related threats, Donald Trump has rescinded Obama-era rulespreparing infrastructure for climate impacts. He has taken an axe to policies that would lower greenhouse gas emissions from cars and power plants and announced that the US will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

This agenda has been criticized by researchers who have called for an urgent reappraisal of the risk posed by climate change.

“We know this threat exists, and yet in many cases, society is not adequately planning for these storms,” Trenberth said.

“I believe there is a need to increase resilience with better building codes, flood protection, and water management, and we need to prepare for contingencies, including planning evacuation routes and how to deal with power cuts.”

This year, however, the focus will again be on disaster recovery rather than long-term mitigation. Ken Graham, director of Noaa’s National Hurricane Center said that the “entire Gulf Coast is at risk from storms and that several hurricanes can strike in a single season”.

“Don’t wait for a hurricane to be on your doorstep to make a preparedness plan, by then it may be too late,” he added. “Take the time now to get prepared for the season ahead.”


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