With Harvey, Irma, and now Maria, scientists look for an explanation as to why the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been so intense.
Hurricane Harvey at peak strength [Image by NOAA]
Hurricane Harvey, the first major hurricane to hit the US in 12 years, made landfall in Texas on August 25. Hurricane Irma, meanwhile, made landfall in Florida on September 10, after wreaking havoc in Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Anguilla, Saint Barthélemy, and Saint Martin. Harvey was a Category 4, already powerful and destructive, while Irma was an even stronger Category 5. Now, another category 5 hurricane has formed right on the heels of Irma, and has just made landfall on Puerto Rico at the time of this writing. Hurricane Maria has also already devastated the island nation of Dominica.
It took less than a day for Hurricane Maria to go from a Category 1 hurricane to Category 5. Scientists say that a trifecta of conditions led to the successive formation of such powerful and destructive hurricanes.
What's Feeding the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season
Hurricane Irma at peak strength [Image by NASA]
It actually doesn't take much to give rise to a hurricane. The makings of a hurricane take just three ingredients. One is ocean waters that are warmer than usual. Warmer waters are the fuel that create and sustain hurricanes. The second is weakening winds from the Pacific. The lack of stronger winds reduce wind shear, which prevents hurricanes from sustaining their wind speeds. The third, finally, is hot air over the Indian Ocean. Though this area is far away from the Atlantic, the seeds of Atlantic hurricanes form here. These seeds are hot air that turn into atmospheric disruptions and drift over Africa toward the Atlantic.
Meteorologists also say that these conditions are showing no sign of abating any time soon. Thus, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the Colorado University, and the Weather Channel all say that we're likely to see more severe hurricanes this year.
According to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, there may be 14 to 19 named storms as well as seven to nine hurricanes for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. There are certainly more storms now compared to the average number of storms per year in the past. From 1981 to 2010, the average hurricane season saw 12 named storms and six hurricanes.
A Sign of What's to Come?
The weakened Jose and Maria behind it [Image by EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/EPA]
So far, there have been 13 named storms and seven hurricanes this season. A hurricane season usually lasts from June to November, which means there are still over two month left. Even more discomfiting is the fact that as the season progresses, the worse the storms and hurricanes seem to get.
It's also likely that climate change played a role in the severe weather. This isn't to say that climate change caused the formation of the hurricanes themselves. It didn't. However, we can't discount anthropogenic effects on extreme weather. Scientists have also found that more intense hurricanes, falling in Categories 3, 4, and 5, will be more common in the next decades.
Thus, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season may be a precursor for what's to come. Perhaps it won't be, but present evidence shows that extreme weather may get worse in the future.
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