National Geographic News
NASA computer model of Hurricane Sandy.

A NASA computer model of Hurricane Sandy. A new study says climate change could make such storms less likely along the Atlantic Coast.

  Photograph by NASA/ National Geographic Stock

Willie Drye

for National Geographic

Published September 2, 2013

Many scientists have blamed global warming for more intense recent hurricane seasons and for the more destructive storms that are predicted in years to come, but a new study says climate change could eventually help safeguard the U.S. Atlantic Coast from hurricanes.

Climate change might alter atmospheric conditions so that future hurricanes may be pushed away from the East Coast, according to a study published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The warming caused by greenhouse gases—thought to be the result of human activities such as burning fossil fuels—could redirect atmospheric winds that steer hurricanes.

By the next century, the study's authors report, atmospheric winds over the Atlantic could blow more directly from west to east during hurricane season, pushing storms away from the United States.

The study was conducted by meteorologists Elizabeth Barnes at Colorado State University; Lorenzo M. Polvani of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York; and Adam H. Sobelband at Columbia University.

The authors used computer simulations to arrive at their theory about climate change and influences on hurricanes' tracks.

Deterring Another Sandy?

The changes they predict could make it less likely that a future hurricane would follow a path similar to the one that Hurricane Sandy took last fall, when it devastated much of the northeastern U.S. coast, particularly New Jersey and New York.

Sandy's unusual track was caused by a rare interaction between atmospheric winds known as the jet stream and a high-pressure weather system known as a "blocking system" to the north of the hurricane. The interaction steered Sandy on a track that took it almost due west as it made landfall in New Jersey last October 29.

The study's authors noted that Sandy's track was the most perpendicular to the Atlantic Coast of any storm on record. But the east-blowing winds that the study's authors say could result from climate change could push future such storms toward the Atlantic Ocean.

The authors also suggested that the change in atmospheric winds would reduce the likelihood that a high-pressure blocking system similar to the one that affected Sandy's path would form. That would further increase the likelihood that future Atlantic hurricanes would be steered away from the U.S.

A Longer Hurricane Season

Some meteorologists, however, disagreed with the study's findings.

Jennifer Francis, a meteorologist at Rutgers University, said the study "makes a useful contribution" to the understanding of how climate warming may be affecting weather patterns. But she said that though the computer models used in the study are the best available, their accuracy is uncertain.

"In my view, the analysis and results from this and other recent studies do not support the strong statements made by the authors," she said.

Meteorologist Jeff Masters, director of the private weather forecasting website Weather Underground, said there are indications that hurricane seasons are lasting longer in recent decades. Hurricanes are most likely to occur between June 1 and November 30, but warmer sea water could extend the season, he said.

"A longer season gives the opportunity for more strong hurricanes to penetrate to the Northeast U.S. in late fall," Masters said. "This would potentially offset any decrease in Sandy-like impacts due to fewer blocking highs forming in a future climate."

CSU's Barnes, the lead author of the study, acknowledged that the possible lengthening of the hurricane season is a factor in the tracks of future storms and that the computer programs used in the study are "imperfect."

"We comment on that in this paper," she said. "The point one should take from our paper is just that these are the best climate models we have, and they do not support the notion that the kind of steering flow that occurred in Sandy will become more frequent in a warming climate."

Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who edited the PNAS paper, said that "changing steering patterns are only a part of the whole problem of how and whether hurricane risk may change in a particular place."

"One must also account for changing locations and times of storm formation, and changing storm frequency and intensity," Emanuel said. "These can very much change the landscape of hurricane risk, so one should be careful in drawing overall conclusions about such risk from just one piece of this problem."

26 comments
Baboe Hlabano
Baboe Hlabano

systems tend to go from a state of order to a state of disorder therefore we can not expect less hurricanes."Entropy"

JIm Steele
JIm Steele

Superstorm Sandy contradicts global warming theory. Trenberth claimed rising CO2 would cause more category 4 and 5 hurricanes but Sandy was just a category 2. The collision with cold air amplified the storm. CO2 advocates argued that the North Atlantic Oscillation would remain positive but it went negative and the cold air created a blocking high pressure turning a small storm inland. Using Sandy to support climate fears is incorrect. It suggests building a resilient environment by restoring tidal marshes and coastal dunes would be best protection against such natural disasters. 

JIm Steele
JIm Steele

Superstorm Sandy contradicts global warming theory. Trenberth claimed rising CO2 would cause more category 4 and 5 hurricanes but Sandy was just a category 2. The collision with cold air amplified the storm. CO2 advocates argued that the North Atlantic Oscillation would remain positive but it went negative and the cold air created a blocking high pressure turning a small storm inland. Using Sandy to support climate fears is incorrect. It suggests building a resilient environment by restoring tidal marshes and coastal dunes would be best protection against such natural disasters. 

Bill Slycat
Bill Slycat

"Many scientists have blamed global warming for more intense recent hurricane seasons..." During Grover Cleveland's two terms the US was hit with 26 hurricanes. So far, During Obama's presidency, we've been hit with 3. The scientists have missed the mark for several years now. "But she said that though the computer models used in the study are the best available, their accuracy is uncertain." And so, this obviously also holds true for all climate models to date. Scientists still can't make accurate climate predictions, yet many claim their studies are a certainty. The money is too big for them not to.

 

Bill Slycat
Bill Slycat

"Many scientists have blamed global warming for more intense recent hurricane seasons..." During Grover Cleveland's two terms the US was hit with 26 hurricanes. So far, During Obama's presidency, we've been hit with 3. The scientists have missed the mark for several years now. "But she said that though the computer models used in the study are the best available, their accuracy is uncertain." And so, this obviously also holds true for all climate models to date. Scientists still can't make accurate climate predictions, yet many claim their studies are a certainty. The money is too big for them not to.

 

Harry Tuttle
Harry Tuttle

Sounds like more 'heading off at the pass' CYA for the coming reality debunking of their prior predictions. Yeah, scientists are human and  susceptible to the same ego foibles as all humans.

Babu Ranganathan
Babu Ranganathan

GLOBAL WARMING MAY NOT BE MAN MADE

Dr. Larry Vardiman (scientist and physicist) of the Institue for Creation Research says:

"One possible scenario may be found in a recent series of articles by Henrik Svensmark and Nigel Marsh, cosmic ray specialists from Denmark, who have shown an indirect connection between galactic cosmic ray (GCR) intensity and global temperature.7,8,9 They are studying the influence of the Sun on the flow of GCR to Earth. The Sun's changing sunspot activity influences the magnetosphere surrounding the Earth permitting more GCR to strike the Earth during high periods of activity.

When the Sun is active, the intensity of GCR striking the Earth is increased, causing more ionization in the atmosphere, creating more carbon-14, and possibly creating more cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). This increase in CCN, in turn, appears to create more low-level clouds which cool the Earth. When the Sun is quiet the GCR intensity striking the Earth is reduced, allowing the Earth to warm. Svensmark and Marsh have shown a striking statistical correlation between sunspot activity and global cooling and warming over the past 1000 years.

The recent rise in global temperature may partially be due to current low solar activity supplemented by a recent increase in carbon dioxide concentration measured at Mauna Loa. The connection which still needs further study is the production of CCN and clouds by GCR." 

There is a good deal of science showing that global warming is not mad made. Yes, we still should have pollution controls, as we already do, but not to the extreme because it will unnecessarily hurt business.

Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

Babu G. Ranganathan
B.A. Bible/Biology

Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

Steve Nicholson
Steve Nicholson

Does that mean most precipitation from the Atlantic would be redirected away and create a much dryer eastern US?

Tom Smith
Tom Smith

i don't really think scientist know what is going on with climate change.  

Paul M.
Paul M.

Only a comet hit could be worse than a climate crisis yet the scientists refuse to agree that their own comet hit of emergency of climate change crisis is as real as they love to say comet hits are. So if it's a real threat to the planet why don't they say it is and put and end to the entire debate because 28 more years of agreeing only it could be, not WILL be a crisis is unsustainable and kills any chance for CO2 mitigation to save our own children''s lives.

Science needs to say their own 28 year old "maybe" crisis is now inevitable not just possible and likely and maybe and...

Since science has never said or agreed it WILL be a crisis that means nobody including you believers can say a crisis WILL happen, only could be a crisis. 

Phillip Noe
Phillip Noe

@JIm Steele  No, Sandy doesn't "contradict" global warming theory.  That's a Hasty Generalization, a nasty logic error.  And your phrase... "CO2 advocates"?  What does that mean?  CO2 is the main pollutant causing climate change or do you think otherwise despite the overwhelming science?  Sandy may prove to be a good example of what many coastal areas may experience even though climate change may not have influenced it.

But lets not overlook the gorilla in the room.  Humans are warming the earth mainly by burning fossil fuels and clearing the land.  CO2 emissions are the main pollutant responsible for changing the atmosphere's composition.  This change alters climate in many different ways.  We'll see how the hurricane count comes out but certainly with warmer oceans and atmosphere, storms will carry more moisture.  They will be stronger.  This is well established.  And it's only one of many very unfriendly effects of climate change.

As the sea levels raise and storms get stronger restoring tidal marshes will help in the short run.  But in the long run, the HUMAN disasters brought on by climate change are best addressed in terms of prevention, that is, reducing emissions as soon as possible.

Phillip Noe
Phillip Noe

@Bill Slycat  Computer models are a small part of climate change science. 

I've NEVER heard a climate scientists say that their predictions are in any way related to "certainty".  Science is about probabilities not absolutes.  The models have been helpful.  Consider similar models that track the path of hurricanes.  Nice to have them right?  Are their predictions ever referred to as a certainty? No, of course not.

What is VERY likely is that humans are warming the planet and the consequences are not good.  All the world's respected scientific institutions that considered the issue concur.  We'd better do more to change the ways we generate and use energy or humanity will suffer more and more nasty consequences. 

Phillip Noe
Phillip Noe

@Babu Ranganathan   There's that same old post.  Too bad for you that ALL the world's respected scientific institutions that considered the issue disagree with you and vardiman.  I'll stick with NASA, NAS, AAAS, AGU, MET, and all the rest.  HUMANS are indeed warming the planet mainly by using the atmosphere as if it were an endless waste disposal site.  Now we know all too well that it isn't.  We'd better change our ways and soon.

Stephanie S.
Stephanie S.

@Steve Nicholson I didn't think of that. I'm no scientist or anything but living in NJ I have to worry. While i'm all for hurricanes going out to sea not if it comes at the expense of being too dry and not getting enough rain. That could prove terrible. One thing I feel is for certain though, humans are treating the planet terribly and we have got to stop, for our sake and it's. Earth is everyone's home here, we should be taking care of it, not destroying it. I think though that the planet will probably outlive us, that if the worst came we'd go extinct and that the Earth would eventually recover. That is just a thought though.

jim adams
jim adams

@Tom Smith They do know, but as scientists understand life, the universe and everything. Not in the simple, easy-to-understand terms i think you want to hear.

Would it help to say?: We need to reduce Arctic Sea ice melting within a decade so the methane in the permafrost won't come out? Or in that same decade, cut our CO2 emissions by 2/3 or more, also to keep the methane from coming out and to stop the oceans from becoming more acidic.  (google these for more info)

Having said that .. now it is up to you to both do this and get our politicians in action to create this on an emergency basis. Scientists are not politicians, or the kinds of leaders we need for this world sized EMERGENCY.


jim adams
jim adams

@Paul M. Scientists are (finally!) saying that Global Warming is here, and it IS a crisis. After that they argue -- and as someone said, when scientists quit arguing, they are no longer doing science.

So what's so is: Global Warming is here. It is sufficiently anthropogenic that we can do something about it (take anthropogenic actions). It is serious for our planet -- not just humanity. If we-- you and me -- don't get our movers and shakers off their butts and alleviating this crisis we have created, we have then created problems much much bigger than serious.

Phillip Noe
Phillip Noe

@Paul M. If "science" tells you that smoking cigarettes increases the likelihood of adding risks to your health, will you insist on "them" telling you it WILL hurt you before you change your behavior? 

It is well established science that business as usual, continued pollution of our atmosphere, is dangerous.  Consider it a fact. 

Contact your reps in Congress.  Insist they work harder to reduce global emissions.  Our future generations are at risk.  It is self-destructive, irrational, and immoral to needlessly jeopardize the only habitat that can sustain us.

Jim Steele
Jim Steele

@Phillip Noe @JIm Steele  You speculate "HUMAN disasters brought on by climate change" as if it were a proven fact, but  predictions have failed. Extreme tornados and hurricanes are now less common. IN the USA droughts and extreme heat were worse in the 30s. Antarctic sea ice has been growing. One merely needs to read peer reviewed literature reporting the historical records to see that far worse floods and droughts occurred during the LIttle Ice Age.  You are simply proffering a horrific view of the future that is contradicted by an abundance of evidence. The greatest extreme swings in climate  ever documented were the Danasgard-Oeschger events. Those occurred during the last ice age and disappeared as the earth naturally warmed.

Phillip Noe
Phillip Noe

@Jonathan Smythe

Here's how pollutant is defined. 

"any substance, as a chemical or waste product, that renders the air, water, or other natural resource harmful or generally unusable."

It has been determined first scientifically then legally that CO2 is a pollutant.  Our emissions have changed the composition of the atmosphere which affects temps and climate patterns.  The consequences are harmful.  Read about raising sea levels, reduced fresh water supplies, ocean acidification, etc.

Douglas Hanking
Douglas Hanking

@Jonathan Smythe @Phillip Noe @JIm Steele - Philip was discussing CO2 as a pollutant in terms of the % of it which comprises Air. If you think of Air as an Alloy, adding gases into it changes its properties. Where those properties cause a negative result you can class the component gases which cause them as pollutants. Phillip set out the negative affects quite clearly. 

Climate change happens anyways, i'm not denying it or using it as a scare tactic. That was a bit of a cheap shot on your part imo. Its a fact. Its also a fact that we (humans) are releasing large amounts CO2 which has been locked away in fossil fuels into the atmosphere. This release is changing the composition of air. The oceans have so far acted as a buffer for this release by absorbing a proportion of this CO2 (see Ocean Acidification), however they will become saturated, at which time we will also see an acceleration in the change of composition of air and the associated results of this.

I'm not that concerned by climate change, but to ignore the facts in spite of good science is foolish. More so, ignoring the limited supply of fossil fuels and continuing to rely on the exploitation of them is equally as foolish. All races, cultures and nations should be uniting to strive for efficiency and reduction of dependence in dirty energy. If that prevents a few hurricanes and saves a Polar Bear or two, while at the same time creating a future for all our children and their children, then its a bonus. 

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