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Stronger Storms in a Record Warm World — Looking Ahead to the Atlantic Hurricane Season, 2018

No holds barred, 2017 featured the most devastating hurricane season on record for the North Atlantic basin. More than 282 billion dollars in damages were inflicted. The season produced the strongest storm ever to form in the Atlantic — Irma. And another very strong storm — Maria — resulted in the loss of an estimated 5,000 lives in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

With human-caused climate change making the strongest storms more and more powerful, we ask the pertinent question — how bad will the 2018 hurricane season be?

(Analysis of climatological factors leading up to the 2018 hurricane season.)

Already, we have seen sub-tropical storm Alberto form in the Caribbean and track northward into the U.S. Gulf Coast prior to official hurricane season start. This storm brought with it heavy rains to the Eastern U.S. A region already reeling from historic flooding. One locked beneath a seemingly never-ending Matrix-esque pall of dark clouds. Alberto is one of many recent early season storms. And it may be a harbinger of more intense storms to follow.

Much warmer than normal sea surfaces are quite pervasive across the Gulf of Mexico and off the U.S. East Coast. In these regions temperatures range between 1 C and up to 7 C above average in the most extreme instances. These near-shore much warmer than normal waters will tend to fuel any storm that does approach the U.S. In addition, a fading La Nina could enable storm formation by reducing wind shear over the Atlantic. Lastly, combined high atmospheric water vapor levels and instability over the Eastern U.S. and parts of the North Atlantic may aid in storm formation and help to fuel the storms that do gather.

(Odd Alberto tracking toward Lake Michigan yesterday. Alberto, as with many recent storms, maintained strength over land while dumping heavy rainfall. While not comparable to Harvey’s all-time record inundation, Alberto is contributing to very severe rainfall over the Eastern U.S. during late spring of 2018. Image source: University of Miami and Brian McNoldy.)

NOAA, however, is presently predicting a storm season that is about average when compared to past years. And sea surface temperatures presently over the key storm formation zones running from the Cape Verde Islands through the Caribbean are cooler than normal. These cooler waters could persist into August and September, which would help to take the edge off of any storms that do form.

Though climate change is producing a very clear trend of increasing peak storm intensity, it is less likely that extreme seasons like 2017 will occur back-to-back. However, human-caused climate change does have a tendency to produce unpleasant surprises. And the early formation of Alberto is no reassurance for even a temporary return to normalcy.

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