Hurricanes and Climate Laser Talk

This page was updated on 05/22/18 21:57 CDT.

Question:  What’s the connection between hurricanes and climate change?

Answer: Hurricanes occur with or without global warming, but global warming has a strong effect on how they behave.

The energy that feeds hurricanes – the name we give tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic – comes from the warmth of ocean water. The oceans absorb over 90% of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere from rising greenhouse gases [1], so warmer water pumps more energy and moisture into storms once they have formed. This leads to more powerful winds and more rain. Additionally, global warming affects the size of a hurricane – the area it covers – based how deep into the water the excess warmth penetrates [2]. Global warming increases ocean warming not only on the surface, but increasingly farther below it. [3]

Global warming affects another phenomenon called wind shear that could produce fewer Atlantic storms in a given year, [4] but those that persist will become larger, more intense, and longer-lasting than they would otherwise have been. [1] Another wild card is the effect of polar warming on the jet streams, which can alter the path of hurricanes. [5] And finally, sea level rise increases the risk of storm surge and flooding in vulnerable coastal areas exposed to these more powerful hurricanes. [6]

The bottom line is that global warming may result in fewer Atlantic hurricanes but those that form are expected to be larger, wetter, and longer-lived, making them more destructive when they make landfall.

  1. Purkey, S. and G. Johnson. “Surprising Depth to Global Warming’s Effects.” LiveScience (27 Mar 2013).
  2. Le Page, M. “Hurricane Irma’s Epic Size is Being Fuelled by Global Warming.” New Scientist (6 Sep 2017).
  3. Dahlmann, L. “Climate Change: Ocean Heat Content.” NOAA (14 Jul 2015).
  4. Soden, B. and G. Vecchi. “Large-Scale Climate Projections and Hurricanes.” NOAA Geophyisical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (6 Jan 2017).
  5. Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University. Private communication (13 Sep 2017).
  6. “Storm Surge.” NOAA U.S. Climate Resilience Tool Kit (6 Oct 2017).


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