Hurricane Idalia, which is feeding on some of the world’s hottest water, is swiftly intensifying as it approaches Florida and the remainder of the Gulf Coast. It’s happened a lot lately.
“It’s 88, 89 degrees (31, 32 degrees Celsius) over where the storm’s going to be tracking, so that’s effectively rocket fuel for the storm,” Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said. “It’s basically all systems go to intensify the storm.”That water “is absurdly warm, and to see those values over the entire northeast Gulf is surreal,” according to University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
Warm water provides energy to hurricanes. Idalia is at a buffet with unlimited food.
What makes this so difficult and hazardous is that Idalia is moving so quickly and increasing so quickly that some folks may be ready for what appeared to be a weaker storm the day before rather than what they’ll experience.
“Hurricane Idalia has the potential to set a record for intensification rate because it’s over such warm water,” said MIT hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel. Only a few places on Earth had conditions — largely warm water — so favorable for a storm’s quick strengthening on Tuesday.
Hurricane Idalia was experiencing 80 mph winds at the time. It reached 90 mph a few hours later, and by 10 p.m. Idalia was a Category 2 storm with 110 mph winds that had increased by 40 mph in 21 hours. A storm is considered to be rapidly intensifying when the wind speed exceeds 35 mph in 24 hours.
Scientists have been talking all summer about how hot the waters are at the surface, particularly in the Atlantic and in Florida, and how deeper water, as measured by something called ocean heat content, is also breaking records due to human-caused climate change. The National Hurricane Center’s forecast discussion notably mentioned the ocean heat content when predicting that Idalia would likely reach 125 mph winds before making landfall Wednesday morning.
Is hurricane Idalia human-caused?
Hurricane Idalia “rapid intensification is definitely feeding off that warmth that we know is there,” said to Kristen Corbosiero, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Albany.
According to Corbosiero and other experts, the warm water is the result of a combination of human-caused climate change, a natural El Nino, and other random weather phenomena.
And there’s more. Idalia has been parked several times over the Loop Current and its eddies. According to Corbosiero, these are pools of extremely warm and deep water that flow up from the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Deep water is significant because hurricane growth is frequently halted when a storm encounters cold water. Emanuel described it as “cold water thrown on a pile of hot coals powering a steam engine.” Storms frequently apply the brake because they churn up cold water from the deep, dampening its charging up.
Idalia, not so much. Not only is the water deeper down warmer than it has been in the past, but Idalia is heading to an area off Florida’s western coast where the water is not deep enough to get chilly, according to Emanuel. Furthermore, because this is the first storm of the season to pass through the area, no other cyclone has churned up cold water for Idalia to impact, according to Klotzbach.
Upper level crosswinds, known as shear, are another factor that might impede strengthening. However, Idalia traveled into an area with little shear or anything else to slow it down, according to hurricane scientists.
A storm strengthening as it approaches the coast should ring a bell. Six storms rapidly intensified in 2021: Delta, Gamma, Sally, Laura, Hannah, and Teddy. Hurricanes Ian, Ida, Harvey, and Michael all did so before wreaking havoc on the United States in the last five years, according to Klotzbach. There have been plenty others.
Storms that are within 240 miles (400 kilometers) of coasts throughout the world are intensifying three times faster than they did 40 years ago, according to a study released last week. According to a study published in Nature Communications, they used to happen five times a year on average, but now occurred 15 times a year.
When it comes to a single storm like Idalia, scientists like Wang and Corbosiero say it’s difficult to blame its quick intensification on climate change. However, when scientists look at the larger picture across many years and many storms, other research have found a link between global warming and rapid intensification.
Wang identified a natural climatic cycle linked to storm activity as well as increased sea surface temperatures as variables with rapid intensification in his study. He added that when he used computer simulations to remove warmer water as a cause, the last-minute strengthening vanished.
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