2010 Hurricane Season: A Product of Climate Change, or Not?

2010 Hurricane Season: A Product of Climate Change, or Not?

May 28, 2010 04:13
by J. Wylie Donald

On Monday night on the last day of May we will make our way home from our various Memorial Day activities and on Tuesday welcome the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season.  It looks ominous.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that this year could be “one of the more active on record.”  A few things form the basis for this prognostication.

First, wind shear in the upper atmosphere is deadly for hurricanes.  In 2009 El Niño in the eastern Pacific was strong, and so was the wind shear it generated.  This year El Niño has dissipated.  Second, sea surface temperatures are higher than average.  Low wind shear and high sea surface temperature support hurricane formation.  Third, favorable wind flows off the west coast of Africa are expected.  Scientists refer to the pattern of warm waters and favorable winds over decades as the “tropical multi-decadal signal.”  A component of the tropical multi-decadal signal is the “Atlantic multi-decadal oscillation” or AMO, which is primarily identified with Atlantic sea surface temperatures.  The current state of the oscillation favors the formation of hurricanes and began in 1995.

It is worth noting that the AMO arises independently of climate change.  The IPCC includes a discussion of the AMO in its 2007 report.  The language is dense but the graphs are not and I commend them to you. Click here.  To even a lay reader like myself, it is quite apparent that something is cycling and that, whatever it is, we are in the middle of the hot portion.

So the interesting question is whether the AMO and climate change together will lead to more severe and more frequent hurricanes.  A working group of the World Meteorological Organization addressed this question in a statement published in 2006. Click here.  To quote the WMO:  “The scientific debate … is not as to whether global warming can cause a trend in tropical cyclone intensities. The more relevant question is how large a change:  a relatively small one several decades into the future or large changes occurring today?”

This is no small question.  If climate change will increase the severity and frequency of hurricanes today, then many of the steps society is taking right now may be inadequate.  Building codes, zoning decisions, and emergency response planning are all based on the likely scenarios to be encountered.  But it just may be that we don’t know the likely scenarios.  By the same token, if the climate change effect will not be noticed for decades, strategies for adaptation can be successful.

The WMO working group meets again at the end of hurricane season in November.  For planning purposes, let’s hope they can provide more guidance.  In the meantime, maybe a trip to Kansas is in order.

Climate Change | Wind Energy | Weather

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