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2018’s ‘especially astounding’ hurricane season is a warning of what’s to come

Warming-fueled superstorms like Florence, Michael, and Willa are going to become more and more common.

Satellite image of Hurricane Willa, Monday October 22 when it was a Category 5 storm with 160 mph winds. CREDIT: NOAA/RAMMB.
Satellite image of Hurricane Willa, Monday October 22 when it was a Category 5 storm with 160 mph winds. CREDIT: NOAA/RAMMB.

The 2018 hurricane season still has a few weeks to go, but it has already been one for the record books. Warming-fueled waters led to some of the strongest, most  rapidly-intensifying hurricanes ever recorded.

Hurricane Michael was third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in this country — and the most intense October hurricane to hit ever hit the United States. It caused 54 fatalities and more than $8 billion in damage, while obliterating the city of Mexico Beach.

Hurricane Florence arrived late in the season and, like last year’s Hurricane Harvey, brought a historic amount of water. Florence deluged Elizabethtown, North Carolina with a stunning 36 inches of rain, making it the Carolinas’ wettest hurricane on record. It triggered record flooding and is responsible for more than 50 deaths and $13 billion in damages.

Willa capped off the eastern Pacific’s “most active hurricane season on record (since 1971),” as atmospheric scientist Michael Lowry tweeted Sunday. Lowry, a strategic planner at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), noted that Willa was “the 9th (!) Category 4 or 5 hurricane of 2018.”

Lowry added, “This record is especially astounding in the absence of a strong El Niño,” to warm up Eastern Pacific waters.

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What’s especially worrisome is that these three hurricanes all intensified at a very rapid rate, which complicated forecasting for Michael and Willa in particular.

As human-caused global warming continues to accelerate, both sea-surface and deeper-ocean temperatures rise, which provides a growing fuel source for hurricanes.

“Storms are intensifying at a much more rapid pace than they used to 25 years back,” explained the author of a 2012 study on hurricane intensification trends. “They are getting stronger more quickly and also [to a] higher category. The intensity as well as the rate of intensity is increasing.”

A 2015 study on the impact of sea-surface temperatures on the intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic found “intensification increases by 16 percent for every 1°C increase in mean SST.” A 2016 study warned that “the most intense storms” are those that undergo rapid intensification. A 2018 study found that hurricane intensification sped up in the past three decades in the eastern and central Atlantic Ocean.

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“My own work shows that rates of intensification increase more rapidly than intensity itself as the climate warms,” MIT hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel told wunderground.com earlier this month. As a result, “rapidly intensifying storms like Michael may be expected to become more common.”

In short, absent much stronger efforts to cut carbon pollution, hurricane seasons like 2018 and 2017 — and the rapidly intensifying superstorms they gave us, like Harvey, Maria,  Lawrence, Michael, and Willa — are going to become more and more common.