The influence of climate change can already be seen in many extreme weather events, including hurricanes. Earth’s strongest storms are changing, increasing their destructive potential. Researchers continue to study satellite data and model predictions to understand what changes we will see in a future warming world.

Recipe for a Hurricane

Hurricanes are a type of tropical cyclone – a rapidly rotating storm system with a low-pressure center, closed low-level atmospheric circulation, strong winds, and a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms. In order for a hurricane to form, four main ingredients are needed:

  1. Pre-existing weather disturbance
  2. Warm ocean waters
  3. High humidity
  4. Light winds high in the atmosphere

Hurricane formation begins when warm tropical water evaporates and rises. Cool air rushes in to fill the gap and the process repeats. Warm, moist air in the atmosphere condenses into huge storm clouds that spiral around a central column of wind. If there is enough warm water to continue fueling the process and no strong winds to break the system apart, a cyclone forms.

graphic showing the structure of a hurricane.
Image by Kelvinsong, CC BY 3.0

Seasons Greetings!

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. In the northeastern Pacific, the season runs from May 15 to November 30. In the northwestern Pacific, typhoons are most common from late June through December. And the northern Indian Ocean sees cyclones from April to December.

Map of the world where hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons form and the direction they travel.
Photo courtesy of NASA

What’s in a Name?

For centuries, tropical cyclones were named after places, objects, or people (usually saints). Today the World Meteorological Organization maintains six rotating alphabetic lists of Atlantic storm names, which alternate between male and female names.

If a storm is particularly damaging or deadly, the storm’s name is retired and replaced with a new name starting with the same letter.

Wild Winds

Tropical cyclones are categorized according to wind speed:

Graphic showing hurricane wind scale 1 through 5 and the extent of damage on a coastal house, minimal to catastrophic.

Hurricane Hunters

photo from the hurricane hunter plane of clouds forming the eyewall of a hurricane.
Inside Katrina’s eyewall. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Hurricane Hunting began as a dare during World War II, when an Air Force pilot flew into the eye of a Category 1 storm.

Today, Hurricane Hunters from both the Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration routinely fly into tropical cyclones each season, gathering invaluable data used for forecasting and improving model predictions.

Hurricane Capital, U.S.A.

Florida is the most hurricane-prone state in the nation, with 120 storms striking the state between 1850 and 2018. Texas is a distant second with 64. With more than 8,000 miles of coastline, Florida is a big target.

Weather vs. Climate

Weather describes the short-term changes and conditions of the atmosphere – a hot day or afternoon thunderstorm. Climate is the weather in a region over a long period of time. Weather can change in minutes, but climate change spans decades to thousands of years.

Today the Earth is warming much more quickly than in the past. As global climate changes, weather patterns change as well. Scientists are working to better understand the links between climate change and extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

“Weather is your mood and climate is your personality”

— J. Marshall Shepherd, past president of the American Meteorological Society

Changes linked to global climate change

Changes with uncertain link to climate change

No changes observed

Myths, Facts, and Maybes

Climate attribution studies examine the role climate change plays in extreme weather events. These studies use satellite data to calculate long-term trends and computer models to simulate hurricane responses to various climate scenarios. This allows climate scientists and meteorologists to study patterns that may reveal climate change’s influence on hurricanes.

graph showing extreme weather trends
Image courtesy of Climate Central

“In the past, a typical climate scientist’s response to questions about climate change’s role in any given extreme weather event was ‘We cannot attribute any single event to climate change.’ The science has advanced to the point that this is no longer true as an unqualified blanket statement.”

— National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016

World’s Largest Hurricane Simulator

Researchers at the SUSTAIN Laboratory at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science use a massive hurricane simulation tank to conduct tests that are usually too difficult or dangerous to complete during a natural storm. These researchers hope that by studying heat and momentum transfer in the simulator they might better understand how hurricanes intensify.

Rising Seas

photo of water-covered road
Photo by Oliver Rich, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Often the most damaging consequence of a hurricane is not from wind, but flooding from precipitation and storm surge. When you add sea level rise – one of the most well-known effects of climate change – storm surge and flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms are more damaging and penetrate farther inland.