Climate change, pollution impacts hurricane formation in the Atlantic, NOAA study says

Alex Harris, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

MIAMI -- In the last 40 years, the East Coast, including Florida, has been hit by dozens of hurricanes.

New NOAA research suggests human pollution may have increased the likelihood of those Atlantic basin storms, but not in the way you might expect.

A decrease in aerosol pollution over the last 40 years, along with a couple of volcanic eruptions, played the largest role in the increase in hurricanes, said lead author Hiroyuki Murakami, a climate researcher at NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

Climate change also played a role, although it was "outperformed" in the Atlantic basin specifically by aerosols and volcanoes, Murakami said.

This is the latest in a line of research that seeks to disentangle the complex relationship between climate change and natural variability in hurricane formation.

"At this point, there's no event that is 100% naturally driven and there's no event that's 100% climate change. It's all shades of gray," said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University not involved with the study.


The study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examined every storm from 1980 to 2018 and found that the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, along with changes in other human pollution, has changed how often storms form in certain locations. Some spots, like the Atlantic basin, saw a "substantial increase" in storms, but other spots, like the southern Indian Ocean, saw far fewer.

Volcanic eruptions from El Chichon in Mexico in 1982 and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 also cooled the atmosphere nearby and shifted storm activity. But NOAA scientists said the impacts of those eruptions dissolved by 2000 and didn't impact the next 18 years of activity.

For the Atlantic basin, the birthplace of the storms that threaten Florida, Murakami's team found that lower levels of aerosol pollution played a large role in the frequency of storms. Aerosols are small particles in the air and can be naturally occurring, like dust or sand, or human-caused like the thick smoke caused by burning diesel fuel. Clouds of air pollution shade ocean waters and keep temperatures down, making it harder for hurricanes to strengthen.

"When you have more aerosols and dust, especially in the Caribbean, you tend to have a quiet overall hurricane season," Klotzbach said.


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