Atlantic Hurricane Season a Bellwether for the Climate

Igor and Julia churn the Atlantic simultaneously

2010 a record-breaking hurricane season.

As meteorologist Jeff Masters reports in his blog Wunderblog, hurricane activity stepped-up into record territory last week with Karl and Julia reaching Category 4, only the second time on record that two Cat 4 storms have been active simultaneously (the last time was in 1926).

By 5am on September 15th, Julia emerged into Cat-4 status, making the fourth Category 4 hurricane for the 2010 season, and the earliest so many large storms have formed since record-keeping began in the mid nineteenth century — and all occurring within the shortest time span ever recorded.

Karl became the eleventh named storm for the season, making 2010 the fifth most active year in the Atlantic, behind 2005 (a hurricane season we all remember well), 1995, 1936, and 1933. Julia became the largest hurricane ever to form so far east, Earl the fourth largest so far north.

Rising sea surface temperatures feeding intensified storms

This year has seen record heat across the globe, including record warming of global sea surface temperatures. With rising ocean surface temperatures come more intense storms – especially in the Atlantic. Modeling the cause and effect of climate change and hurricane activity is complicated. Specific projected outcomes vary depending on location and whose climate model you look at . But in a Yale Environment 360 interview MIT meteorologist Kerry Emanuel, a leading expert on hurricane activity, gave what Joe Romm, in his blog Climate Progress, calls the “bottom line” on the complex interplay between ocean warming and hurricane activity:

“…Amid the uncertainty, one thing seems likely: an increase in the most potent – and destructive – storms.”

Emmanuel notes that 80 percent of the damage from Hurricanes in the U.S. is caused by the fewest, but most intense, storms – Category 3, 4, and 5. There may be fewer storms, but there will probably be more intense storms, especially in the Atlantic. With Julia and Earl, the path of those storms have begun to range wider across the Atlantic. The potential for increased warming due to the latency of the climate system indicates a continued upward trajectory for more powerful and destructive storms.

Economic costs of ignoring climate change – paying attention to climate models and trends

Skeptics dismiss climate modeling as an impossible attempt to “predict the future”- a misguided characterization at best. Models project possibilities and consequences. Ignoring those projections is perilous and costly.

Research by Swiss Reinsurance Company, the world’s second-largest insurance company, shows that some Caribbean nations may see a 50 percent increase in damage costs from hurricanes in the coming decades.

In his Yale 360 interview, meteorologist Emmanuel says that development in the coastal areas most at risk in Florida is encouraged, effectively underwritten by the state, with potential costs that will reverberate throughout the economy:

You know, the state basically has become the insurer of property in Florida,” he says. “Everybody knows that a relatively small hurricane will bankrupt the [state hurricane insurance] plan, and they will all go with hat in hand to the federal government. So the rest of us will bail them out. And so we have the situation of hard-working people in factory jobs and farmers subsidizing the landowners of Palm Beach. It’s crazy.”

2010 a bellwether year for the climate

In every aspect of our lives, we weigh risks and consequences, costs and benefits.

We don’t fasten our seatbelt as we prepare to hurdle down the highway because we’re being alarmist. Yet many blithely invoke the phrase as a sort of epithet to those warning of the consequences of ignoring the clear signals of climate change already underway.

The 2010 hurricane season should be yet another bellwether for the climate.

Fastern your seatbelt, we’re in for a wild ride.

Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

3 thoughts on “Atlantic Hurricane Season a Bellwether for the Climate”

  1. Wow, it is incredible how global warming does not only increase ice melting and rises the sea levels but also increases the incidence of hurricanes. I would also conclude from this change of temperatures, that the wind current paths and ocean current paths may either/both change or/and get faster, thus affecting among many migrator species, sea turtles in the ocean. Also the climate balance would show changes from colder temperatures to hotter as we are already seeing now.

    Who know how many other effects could there be happening now due to global warming. The more people are aware of the instability that global warming is causing the more will start being aware of taking care of the planet. Thank God, some people are trying to promote awareness, such as this site, greenpeace and I recently found a Canadian artist who is going this week to the North Pole to sing and bring awareness to the artic melting (

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