Super-Hurricanes & Cyclones

Atmosphere specialist David Keellings on the new age of super-hurricane/cyclones.

On September 20th, 2017 record-smashing Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Thousands died. New science confirms the devastating rains and floods during Maria were far more likely due to climate change.

After the storm 4% of the island's population fled for the US mainland. They're among the new American climate refugees, joining those from Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina.

The new paper is titled “Extreme Rainfall Associated With Hurricane Maria Over Puerto Rico and Its Connections to Climate Variability and Change.” We welcome lead author Dr. David J. Keellings, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Alabama.

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Just 8 days before Maria struck, David and coauthor José Hernández Ayala published research on extreme floods and tropical cyclones in Puerto Rico! Dr. Ayala is from Puerto Rico with family still there. Both scientists recognized unique climate geography in Puerto Rico and decided on the paper “Extreme floods and their relationship with tropical cyclones in Puerto Rico.” Following the disaster of Maria still continuing today, that 2017 research seems prescient.

Though local officials claimed only 64 people died during Maria, a George Washington University study says the hurricane caused 3000 direct and indirect deaths. The speed and amount of rain contributed to the devastation of Maria, an order of magnitude greater than other tropical storms and hurricanes, like Georges and Hortense, which caused deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Jeff Masters points out, about this new Keellings/Ayala paper on Maria and the Puerto Rico rains, a kind of feedback effect between ocean heat, water vapor, and storm strength. Talking about “latent heat” released as water vapor condenses into rain, Jeff says that latent heat causes even more water vapor to be sucked up, making still more rain. That is indeed a “positive feedback loop” says David Keellings, although the public keeps confusing “positive” with “good”, when in science this kind of climate loop is very, very bad.

Science warns we should expect about 7% more water vapor in the air for every 1°C of ocean warming. A new report from the World Meteorological Organization says in 2018 the heat content of the upper levels of the ocean were the highest ever recorded. Maybe we will see a new scale of hurricane rains, off the scale. I ask David: will we need a Category 6 designation for coming storms?

His answer intrigued me. Keellings suggests that physics may have upper limits for the strength of storms on Earth. But he wasn’t sure what that limit might be—something I would have to take up with cloud experts. I think we all fear even worse super-storms, something not seen before in human times. If there is an upward limit, that might be comforting to know. Although I recall James Hansen, leading a huge group of climate scientists, wrote about massive storms in the Atlantic in Earth’s past, big enough to toss massive rocks the size of houses a long distance inland on Caribbean Islands. We sure don’t want to see that. Keep track of the super storms on Jeff Masters’ blog “CAT 6“.

Closer to David’s adopted home state of Alabama (he originally came from Scotland)—a report released in April by NOAA and the National Weather Service upgrades Hurricane Michael to Category 5. Only three Cat 5 hurricanes ever made landfall in the continental United States before. Michael smashed the Florida Panhandle on October 7, 2018, and now becomes the fourth Cat 5. The full report from NOAA/NWS here.

There are also a number of new studies out on Hurricane Harvey and the increased risks of extreme rains hitting the U.S. Gulf coast. One study found, and I’ll quote Dr. Jeff Masters here, “Climate change made Hurricane Florence’s most intense rains over North Carolina in 2018 more than 50% greater in magnitude than they would have been otherwise…”

I also ask Dr. Keellings about his earlier work about heat waves expected in Florida as climate change develops. He notes that “heat waves have become increasingly frequent and intense throughout much of the state.” That’s pretty important for a state that grows much of the winter food for America.

Re David Keellings interview, this: “Psychologists release results of survey of “Maria generation” kids—“More than seven percent of youth reported clinically significant symptoms of PTSD” published April 28, 2019 on one of my favorite blogs, “Desdamona Despair”.

The despair on Puerto Rico is so bad after that devastating hurricane, some people are calling the suffering youth “The Maria Generation“.

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