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Monster storms await us in 2022: the weather in the Atlantic is now the same as before Hurricane Katrina

The Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1, and the Gulf of Mexico is already warmer than average. Even more worrying is the flow of warm tropical water, which extends unusually far into the bay for this time of year and can turn tropical storms into monstrous hurricanes. Yahoo.

Photo: Shutterstock

It's called the Loop Current, and it's a big risk for hurricanes in the Persian Gulf.

When the Loop Current reaches this far north at the start of the hurricane season - especially at a time that is predicted to be hectic - it could spell disaster for residents of the northern Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida.

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If you look at the temperature maps of the Gulf of Mexico, it is easy to spot the Loop Current. It meanders through the Yucatan Strait between Mexico and Cuba, flows into the Gulf of Mexico, and then returns through the Strait of Florida south of Florida as the Florida Current, where it becomes the main source of the Gulf Stream.

When a tropical storm passes over the Loop Current or one of its giant whirlpools—large swirling pools of warm water resulting from the current—the storm can explode with great force as it draws energy from the warm water.

This year the Loop Current looks surprisingly similar to how it was in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina crossed the Loop Current before devastating New Orleans. Of the 27 named storms that year, seven became major hurricanes. Wilma and Rita also crossed the Loop Current that same year and became two of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record.

Scientists are monitoring the heat content of the ocean. The conditions that are observed in the Persian Gulf in May 2022 are of concern. One known forecast calls for 19 tropical storms — 32% more than average — and nine hurricanes. Loop current can amplify some of these storms.

Why the Loop Current worries forecasters

Warm ocean water doesn't necessarily mean more tropical storms. But once tropical storms reach waters of around 26 C or higher, they can intensify and turn into hurricanes.

Hurricanes draw most of their strength from the top 30 meters of the ocean. Normally, these upper ocean waters mix, allowing warm places to cool quickly. But the subtropical water of the Loop Current is deeper and warmer, as well as saltier, than the normal water of the Persian Gulf. These effects prevent ocean mixing and sea surface cooling, allowing warm currents and their eddies to retain heat at great depths.

In mid-May 2022, satellite data showed that the water temperature of the Loop Current was 26 C or higher at a depth of approximately 100 meters. In summer, this heat can extend up to about 150 meters.

The whirlpool that fueled Hurricane Ida in 2021 had temperatures in excess of 30 C at the surface and warmed up to about 180 meters. Under favorable atmospheric conditions, this deep reservoir of heat helped the hurricane grow into a very powerful and dangerous Category 4 hurricane almost overnight.

During a storm, warm ocean water can create high plumes of rising warm, moist air, providing high-octane fuel for hurricanes. Think about what happens when you boil a large pot of spaghetti on the stove and how steam rises as the water heats up. As more moisture and heat rises inside the hurricane, the pressure drops. The horizontal pressure difference from the center of the storm to its periphery subsequently leads to the fact that the wind speeds up, and the hurricane becomes more and more dangerous.

Because the Loop current and its vortices have so much heat, they don't cool down much and the pressure will keep dropping. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma had the lowest Atlantic central pressure on record, with Rita and Katrina not far behind.

La Niña, wind shear and other busy season factors

Forecasters have other guesses about how the hurricane season might turn out. One of them is La Niña, the opposite of El Niño.

During La Niña, the stronger trade winds in the Pacific bring colder water to the surface, creating conditions that favor the jet stream moving further north. This tends to exacerbate drought in the US South and also weakens wind shear there. Wind shear refers to the change in wind speed and direction with height. Too much wind shear can tear tropical storms apart. But less wind shear, courtesy of La Niña, and more atmospheric humidity could mean more hurricanes.

La Niña was unusually strong in the spring of 2022, although it is possible that it will weaken later in the year, leading to more wind shear towards the end of the season. For now, the upper atmosphere is doing little to stop the hurricane from getting stronger.

It is still too early to tell what will happen to the winds that guide and influence tropical storms. Even before then, conditions over West Africa are critical to the formation of tropical storms in the Atlantic at all. Dust from the Sahara and low humidity can make storms less likely to form.

Climate change plays a role

As global temperatures rise, so does the temperature of the ocean. Much of the heat trapped by human-generated greenhouse gases is stored in the oceans, where it can fuel hurricanes.

Studies show that the Atlantic is likely to have more storms that develop into major hurricanes as temperatures rise, although there will not necessarily be more storms overall. The study examined the 2020 hurricane season, which recorded 30 named storms, 12 of which hit the US, and found that the storms produced more rain than the world would have without the effects of human-induced climate change.

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Another trend we've noticed is that the warm eddies of the Loop Current have more heat than we saw 10 to 15 years ago. It is not yet clear if this is due to global warming, but the impact of the warming trend could be devastating.

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