Hurricanes Are Strengthening Faster Than They Used To

The speed at which storms develop can shorten preparation time

An infrared satellite image shows Hurricane Harvey just prior to making landfall on Aug. 25, 2017. Warm water in the Gulf of Mexico fed heavy rains, according to new research.

If it feels like you didn’t get a lot of warning before intense Caribbean hurricanes last year, that may be because they’re becoming more powerful faster, and that’s making them harder to predict.

Storms can quickly become more powerful through a process called “rapid intensification,” or R-I.

“It’s a very very complicated process and so the models have a great difficulty simulating it,” said Karthik Balaguru, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

He says while RI has always been how big storms come into being, new research from his team shows over the past 30 years storms have gained intensity more quickly.

The changes, he says, play out into how communities in the pathway of storms respond.

“It gives less preparation time for us to respond and take measures to prevent damages,” Balaguru said.

The way RI is changing is due to a cycle of rising and falling of sea temperatures called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), Balaguru said. Temperatures rising over the long term due to global warming may also have had an impact, he said.

While the latest work on RI is limited to an area of the Atlantic east of the Caribbean Sea, it does have implications for the Gulf of Mexico. Balaguru and other researchers said as storms move over the warm waters of the Gulf, they can intensify there as well.


Davis Land

Senior Producer

Davis Land is a senior producer at Houston Public Media. He cut his teeth at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, MA and at WBUR in Boston. His work has appeared on various public radio programs and podcasts including Texas Standard, Here and Now, and Marketplace. Davis is a graduate...

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