Researchers at Auburn University are trying to figure out what factors are causing hurricanes to form so frequently in this astoundingly active hurricane season.
“As a society, we are only now beginning to understand the emotional, physical and economic toll of recent catastrophic events such as hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” said Auburn University climate scientist Hanqin Tian in a news release.
Tian leads Auburn’s Climate, Human and Earth System Sciences and is director of the International Center for Climate and Global Change Research in Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
In August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that this hurricane season would probably be more active than normal, with maybe two to five major hurricanes across the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
So far, we’ve seen five major hurricanes form in the Gulf and the Atlantic all within four weeks. Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico as an extraordinarily dangerous Category 4 storm Wednesday morning, and could continue to pummel the Caribbean islands well into the weekend.
Experts estimated the cost of damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma alone to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Auburn researchers have identified several factors that have led to an abnormally dangerous and active hurricane season, including warming ocean temperatures from climate change, a weak El Nino system, weak trade winds, strong west African monsoons, and wind conditions favorable to hurricane formation.
“Multiple lines of scientific evidence have shown that Earth’s ecosystems and our economic system are very vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, and are already experiencing increased impacts of persistent extreme weather events such as droughts and hurricanes, heat waves and sea-level rise,” said Tian.
Chandana Mitra, an Auburn climatologist and physical geographer, said this year’s hurricanes are being caused by a mixture of complex weather and climate elements.
“Strong El Ninos and wind shear typically suppress development of Atlantic hurricanes, so the prediction for weak conditions points to more hurricane activity this year,” said Mitra. “Also, warmer sea surface temperatures tend to fuel hurricanes as they move across the ocean,” Mitra said.
At the core of the issue is a debate about how much blame to place on climate change and how much to place on incidental weather patterns, the researchers said. Grappling with that question will become more and more important, because when rebuilding is done, the next storm could be just around the corner to knock everything back down.
“The U.S. ecosystems and our economic system are already experiencing increased impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms,” said Tian. “To develop the knowledge and strategies effectively for responding to the risks of hurricanes and tropical storms as well as restoring the impacted ecosystems and economic systems, is of critical importance to adopting a coupled climate-human-earth system approach and engaging policy makers and the public.”
Scott Berson: 706-571-8578, @ScottBersonLE