The impact of extreme ocean heat on hurricane intensity

On Tuesday night, as Hurricane Idalia slammed into the Florida coast, Fox News host Jesse Waters teased his next guest, calling her “the most famous climate scientist in the country.” To anyone following the right-wing climate denial movement, it came as no surprise that his guest was Judith Curry, a retired climatologist who denies that human activity is driving the planet’s current warming and has become a focal point in conservative circles.

What followed was nearly seven minutes of Waters and Curry spreading misinformation about the reality of climate change and its increasing impacts. Curry stated – incorrectly – that “there is no evidence that this is leading to worse weather events.” During her interview, a storm tracker on the side of the screen kept Fox viewers updated on Hurricane Idalia’s trajectory and wind speeds .

No single hurricane can be attributed solely to climate change, and scientists are careful to avoid such explanations. But Idalia is showing all the signs of a storm being amplified by a climate collapse — the kind of event predicted to become increasingly common in a warming world.

Tropical storms are largely fueled by warm water. The Gulf of Mexico is in the midst of an unrelenting ocean heatwave. Earlier this month, waters in the Gulf peaked hottest on record – an average of 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

As Idalia swirled above the scorching Gulf and targeted Florida earlier this week, what is known as “rapid intensification” occurred – a phenomenon in which a cyclone’s maximum sustained winds increase by at least 35 mph in 24 hours. From Tuesday morning through Wednesday, Idalia progressed from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4 hurricane, with winds reaching 55 miles per hour over a 24-hour period.

Idalia eventually weakened slightly to Category 3 before making landfall near Keaton Beach, Fla. on Wednesday, but its violent growth before that reflects the type of hurricane activity that scientists say is becoming more common as climate change slows the increases sea temperatures.

“I’ve seen this signature way too many times over the last few years — a rapid intensification before landfall in the US,” said Eric Blake, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center. wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “#Idalia is showing all the bad signs and that all too familiar pit of stomach feeling is back.”

Jewell Baggett, 51, sits on a bathtub amid debris from Hurricane Idalia in Horseshoe Beach, Florida on Wednesday.
Jewell Baggett, 51, sits on a bathtub amid debris from Hurricane Idalia in Horseshoe Beach, Florida on Wednesday.

Idalia is one of only 10 storms since 1950 to gain at least 40 miles per hour in a single day before making landfall, joining Hurricanes Ida in 2021, Laura in 2020 and Michael in 2018, as Jeff Masters, a former federal hurricane researcher now working for Yale Climate Connections, pointed out in a tweet.

“It is sobering to see that five of these storms have occurred in the last seven years,” he wrote on Wednesday. “Climate change increases the likelihood of rapid deterioration.”

In a subsequent post On the Yale Climate Connections website, Masters argued that the increased sea surface temperatures caused by anthropogenic climate change “resulted in a 40 to 50 percent increase in the destructive power of Idalia by increasing the hurricane’s winds by at least 4 to 5 percent.”

“A 4-5% increase in hurricane winds might not seem like a big deal, but the damage from a hurricane increases exponentially as winds increase,” he wrote. “Like loud [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 100 miles per hour causes ten times the damage of a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 miles per hour. This includes damage not only from winds, but also from storm surges, inland floods and tornadoes.”

Scientists have long warned about the link between climate change and extreme hurricanes.

The 2018 National Climate AssessmentA report commissioned by Congress concluded that “increases in greenhouse gas emissions and decreases in air pollution since 1970 have contributed to an increase in Atlantic hurricane activity” and that “in the future, rainfall and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes and expected to increase in the eastern North Pacific.” ” A Covenant for 2020 study analyzed satellite data spanning 40 years and found that warming of the planet increases the likelihood of a tropical cyclone developing into a major hurricane of magnitude 3 or greater by about 8% per decade. A landmark United Nations report in 2021 completed that climate change is “resulting in an increase in the fraction of intense tropical cyclones” and that “the fraction of intense tropical cyclones (category 4–5) and peak wind speeds of the strongest tropical cyclones are projected to increase worldwide due to increasing global warming.”

A woman watches flooding in Tampa, Fla. Wednesday after Hurricane Idalia made landfall and pushed water over a dam.
A woman watches flooding in Tampa, Fla. Wednesday after Hurricane Idalia made landfall and pushed water over a dam.

Chris O’Meara via Associated Press

Asked for the link on Wednesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters that increased sea heat has led to more extreme cyclones in recent years.

“These storms are intensifying so rapidly that our local emergency management officers have less time to alert, evacuate and get people to safety,” Criswell said. “This is something that we need to consider as we create our preparedness plans, as our communities on the ground create their preparedness plans and how they communicate and prepare their communities for the types of storms they will face in the future.”

But on Wednesday night, as much of Florida was suffering from the effects of Idalia, including widespread flooding, Wesley Brooks, the state’s chief resilience officer, went to X and tried to throw cold water on the science.

“It’s interesting to note that in terms of major hurricanes making landfall in Florida, there appears to be NO REASONABLE TREND for maximum sustained winds or low pressure (ie, hurricane intensity) over time,” he said wrote.

The devastation of Idalia comes just months after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) rejected more than $350 million in federal funding for clean energy and climate from President Joe Biden’s signature climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Education recently approved the use of climate change denial videos and materials in classrooms (E&E). reported. And DeSantis has been for weeks silent about another climate and economic catastrophe in his home state: the mass bleaching of the coral reefs in the Florida Keys.

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