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Climate Change Might Mean Fewer Hurricanes — But They'll Probably Be Stronger

Researchers at Florida State University show the complex ways in which climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of storms.

by Kate Jenkins
May 22 2015, 7:55pm

Image via NASA/AP

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Hollywood producers and pulp fiction scribes have depicted a variety of ways that climate change pushes humanity over the precipice. Powerful typhoons, ragging wildfires, and pounding blizzards are just a few. 

But it may come as somewhat of a surprise that a peer-reviewed paper published this week in Nature Climate Change finds that, while tropical storms and hurricanes are likely to become stronger as a result of climate change, we're also likely to see fewer of them.

James Elsner, co-author of the study, explained that warmer oceans and increased evaporation contribute to the formation of storms, but that a warmer upper atmosphere tends to inhibit the development of storms. 

"So those two factors — warm ocean and a warm upper level — tend to offset each other in terms of hurricane activity," he told VICE News. "It's almost like a capping on the atmosphere that prevents small storms from forming. But if a storm can form, it can get very strong."

Related: It turns out bin Laden was worried about climate change

Joe Casola, Director of Science and Impacts at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, put it another way.

"The trade off is that you also make it a little bit harder for some of those up-down motions to occur," he said, referring to the circulation of wind inside a storm cloud. "You create kind of a high-pressure anomaly — a bit of a cap, if you will — at the higher altitudes in the atmosphere."

Higher temperatures and great amounts of evaporation create more energy in the atmosphere, which has the effect of increasing wind speed. That explains the increased intensity of storms, said Elsner. The result is that we can expect storms to be around 10 percent more intense over the next 20-30 years.

Casola said the study adds heft to prior research on how climate change will impact the frequency and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes. 

"I think the evidence that they show in this paper helps really to strengthen that and explain some of the physical reasons why that should be the case. But that result in and of itself is not a shocker."

Elsner said that what was unique about the study was that he and co-author Nam-Young Kang, both from Florida State University, were able to "quantify that trade-off between frequency and intensity."

Related: Antarctica's melting ice sheets might bring more sea level rise to the US than anywhere else

Casola cautioned that there are other contributing factors at play that could ultimately intensify the damage of hurricane season.

"One thing that the paper doesn't discuss — which is just not the subject of it — is that with sea level rise, the storms of the future, when they do come ashore, are likely to cause more damage," he told VICE News.

"With higher sea levels, you can have more flooding that is more intense, or that reaches farther inland," Casola said. "One shouldn't just make this direct extrapolation to what the risk on land actually is." 

In other words, even during years with fewer or less intense storms, coastal cities may still experience damage. 

And, he added, "Where those storms go is still a whole other area of research that, you know, we don't have a lot of great answers."

Elsner emphasized the complexity of changing storm patterns. 

"It's not as simple as: the sky is falling, and as the atmosphere heats up we're going to have all kinds of chaos," he said. 

Follow Kate Jenkins on Twitter: @kateshannonjenk

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