Energy & Environment

Hurricanes more frequent and destructive in last 150 years: research

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ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images
A member of the Cajun Navy resue team walks in flooded waters in Lumberton, North Carolina, on September 15, 2018 in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

Hurricanes have increased in frequency and destructiveness over the past 150 years, according to research published in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kerry Emanuel, created a model to estimate the trend in hurricanes during this period. Existing data show an increase, but researchers have historically been hesitant to draw a conclusion, saying it could be just as easily attributed to improved record-keeping.

“We chose to use this approach to avoid any artificial trends brought about by the introduction of progressively different observations,” Emanuel said in a statement.

The model indicated “unequivocal increases” in hurricane activity in the North Atlantic during the last 150 years. It also found a brief drop in annual hurricane activity in the 1970s and 80s, which he said tracks with the use of sulfate aerosols, a fossil fuel byproduct that could have led to cooling in the region.

“[A]t this point, we’re more confident of why there was a hurricane drought than why there is an ongoing, long-term increase in activity that began in the 19th century,” he said. “That is still a mystery, and it bears on the question of how global warming might affect future Atlantic hurricanes.”

The data, Emanuel said, “certainly will change the interpretation of climate’s effects on hurricanes — that it’s really the regionality of the climate, and that something happened to the North Atlantic that’s different from the rest of the globe. It may have been caused by global warming, which is not necessarily globally uniform.”

Scientists have pointed to climate change as a major factor in increased intensity of hurricanes, pointing to effects such as warmer ocean temperatures and rising sea levels. The recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report estimated warming is likely to intensify future storms. Experts have said warming is also likely to increase the frequency with which a storm’s intensity rises, as in Hurricane Ida, which made landfall as a category 4 storm in August.

Tags Climate change climate research hurricanes

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