Warm waters juiced Ophelia into the most powerful eastern Atlantic hurricane ever seen

Record-smashing Ophelia slams into Ireland with 119 mph gusts.

Ophelia (in red) is "a huge outlier from the typical envelope of major hurricane tracks in the Atlantic," tweeted Meteorology PhD student, Sam Lillo. CREDIT: @splillo
Ophelia (in red) is "a huge outlier from the typical envelope of major hurricane tracks in the Atlantic," tweeted Meteorology PhD student, Sam Lillo. CREDIT: @splillo

Ex-hurricane Ophelia smashed into Ireland Monday morning with record-breaking gusts of up to 119 mph. The powerful extra-tropical storm — which has already killed two people and blacked-out some 360,000 Irish homes and businesses — is what’s left of the most powerful Eastern Atlantic hurricane ever seen.

“I think it’s unheard of for a hurricane to form this far east in the Atlantic and then take an almost south-to-north track which takes it directly across Ireland,” Prof. John Sweeney of Maynooth University told The Irish Times.

“This was the first major hurricane making it as far east in the Atlantic as it did,” climatologist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress via email. “Irma was the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to form as far east as it did. As ocean surface temperatures rise, the regions where tropical cyclones can form and intensify are expanding. This latest storm is consistent with that trend.”

As National Hurricane Center scientist Eric Blake tweeted, “Near-record warm waters south of the Azores helped fuel this extremely rare event.”

Ophelia joins a hurricane season for the record books, one that included:

  • Harvey, a once-in-25,000-year, “beyond anything experienced” storm
  • Irma, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic
  • Maria, which exploded from a Category 1 storm to Category 5 superstorm in one day

What do all these powerful storms have in common?

Hurricanes “extract heat energy from the ocean to convert it to the power of wind, and the warmer the ocean is, the stronger a hurricane can get,” as meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Jeff Masters has explained. “So, scientists are confident that as we continue to heat up the oceans, we’re going to see more of these high-end perfect storms.”

And the waters that Ophelia traveled were unusually warm (or, rather, they would be unusually warm if humans weren’t warming up the globe at an accelerating pace):

Sea surface temperatures Saturday compared to normal over Atlantic. CREDIT: NOAA (via WashingtonPost).
Sea surface temperatures Saturday compared to normal over eastern Atlantic. CREDIT: NOAA (via Washington Post).

Ophelia is the tenth tropical storm in a row that has turned into a hurricane, something that has never happened in the era of monitoring hurricanes with airplanes. And the official Atlantic hurricane season still has over a month remaining.