Climate change exacerbated record-breaking news and research on the hurricane season 2020

Climate change helped fuel stronger, wetter storms during an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season 2020, a new study shows. The cyclones produced significantly more precipitation than they would have done in a world without global warming.

The most extreme three-hour precipitation rates that season were about 10 percent higher due to the impact of climate change, the study found. And the most extreme three-day precipitation was about 5 percent higher.

It is looking at all the cyclones that formed across the Atlantic, including both tropical storms and hurricanes. When the researchers only focused on storms with hurricane force, they found that the impact of climate change was even stronger. Climate change increased precipitation over three hours by about 11 percent and three days’ precipitation by about 8 percent.

It is a snapshot of what is likely to be a long-term trend.

“As global surface temperatures continue to rise, we expect to see continued increases in precipitation in tropical cyclones due to climate change,” said Kevin Reed, an expert on extreme weather events at Stony Brook University and lead author of the study.

This means a greater risk of damaging floods when storms land. It is a warning sign for coastal communities that they should plan accordingly, Reed noted.

“We have built a society and built infrastructure that has focused on the weather we experienced in the 20th century – and our weather has changed,” he said. “So it’s important to think about how we can adapt our society to deal with these weather changes.”

The Atlantic hurricane season 2020 broke records on the left and right. It produced 30 named storms, the highest number in recorded history. Twelve of them landed on the continental United States, also a record.

Of the 14 storms that reached hurricane strength in 2020, 10 underwent a process called “rapid intensification”, according to NOAA – this is when a storm’s wind speed increases by at least 35 miles per hour over a 24-hour period. It ties 2020 to 1995 for a record number of rapidly intensifying storms in a single season.

An average season produces 14 named storms, according to NOAA, seven of which reach hurricane status. It is based on the average between 1991 and 2020. The number has shifted upwards in recent years. The previous baseline, based on the average between 1981 and 2010, was 12 named storms per season.

Last year was also an above-average hurricane season, although not as busy as 2020 – it produced 21 named storms, seven of which became hurricanes.

Another active season can be expected this year. Researchers at Colorado State University just updated their annual forecast for the 2022 season and predicted 19 named storms and nine hurricanes.

While the large number of storms has raised eyebrows in recent years, researchers have pointed out that climate change has a stronger influence on the severity of hurricanes, rather than their frequency. Models suggest that the total number of hurricanes may not change much in the future – but individual storms will grow stronger and the odds of major hurricanes will increase as the planet warms up.

Research has shown that tropical cyclones around the world are already growing more intense as the planet warms, a trend that is expected to continue.

However, the Atlantic is an unusual case.

During the first half of the 20th century, heavy air pollution over the Atlantic basin masked some of the effects of global warming. Some types of aerosols have a cooling effect on the Earth’s atmosphere. Research suggests that the impact of this pollution had a dampening effect on hurricane activity for several decades.

During the latter half of the century, however, pollution decreased sharply as Europe and North America introduced stricter air quality regulations. The Atlantic began to heat up at a faster rate and hurricane activity began to pick up speed.

This means that part of the increase in Atlantic hurricane activity in recent decades can be attributed to declining air pollution along with the impact of global warming.

But today, the significance of these two factors is changing. Climate change, driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is having a more important impact than pollution regulations.

Studies have identified a number of ways in which climate change is affecting tropical cyclones. Not only do they become more intense – they also migrate further towards the poles, move more slowly in some areas, including the United States, and intensify rapidly more often.

Recent studies have also examined the impact of climate change specifically on some of the largest and most damaging hurricanes in recent years. It is a field of study called “attribution science”, which examines the extent to which warming has exacerbated individual extreme weather events.

For example, research has found that climate change increased both the probability and intensity of Hurricane Harvey’s record-breaking 2017 precipitation, which caused catastrophic floods along the Texas coast. Researchers have found that climate change exacerbated precipitation from Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean in 2017.

Reed himself led a study from 2020 that concluded that Hurricane Florence 2018 also produced more precipitation than it would have done in a world without climate change.

The new study, published yesterday in the journal Nature communication, is among the first to examine the impact of climate change on a single, complete hurricane season. The unusually active season was an excellent opportunity for this type of work, according to Reed – a slower season would have yielded “much less storms to analyze.”

The researchers ran two types of simulations, one modeled the world as it exists today and another modeled a hypothetical world where human-caused climate change does not exist. It is a standard procedure in attribution studies.

They found that climate change significantly increased the amount of precipitation produced by storms in the Atlantic 2020.

This is not exactly a surprising result. The basic rules of physics suggest that warmer seawater helps to drive stronger cyclones. At the same time, warmer air can hold more moisture and produce more rain.

Climate change has increased the average sea surface temperature in the Atlantic by about 0.4 to 0.9 degrees Celsius, the study states.

This is another example of how climate change is reshaping the planet, Reed said. Changes in extreme weather events are some of the most obvious and immediately damaging symptoms of global warming. Hurricanes are not the only ones – forest fires, floods, droughts, heat waves and other severe weather events are worsening around the world.

“Climate change is often seen as a long-term problem,” Reed said. “Sometimes it is the way this challenge is discussed that will come to us in 50 to 70 years if we do not start reducing our greenhouse gas emissions now. But in reality, climate change is here.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.

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