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Question Your World: Why Have Recent Hurricanes Been So Strong?

This year’s hurricane season has been quite intense to say the least! Hurricane season is not even over and we've some big storms that have broken records, one after the other. Why have these recent hurricanes been so strong? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

Hurricane Harvey, the first major hurricane to hit the mainland US in over a decade, was followed in mere days and weeks by other major Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria, all of which had historically strong winds and devastating rain totals. These storms have been all over the news as they have impacted millions of people and resulted in billions of dollars worth of damage.

What made these storms so unique? Some meteorologists have focused on the fact that these storms all underwent “rapid intensification” – meaning they got a lot stronger in a very, very short amount of time, even for major hurricanes. Scientists say a storm has undergone “rapid intensification” when its sustained wind speeds increase by at least 35 mph over a 24-hour period.

The obvious next question here is why do these hurricanes strengthen so quickly? Well, there are a few factors to consider here. Part of this have to do with the natural world doing its thing, but there's concern that we're starting to load the dice and make these intense weather events more likely.

First of all, a lot of this has to do with the ocean itself. A really warm ocean to a hurricane is like an extremely dry forest to a wild fire. When the area of the ocean where Hurricanes form is warmer than normal and sufficiently deep, that can encourage rapid intensification. Also, winds high up in the atmosphere need to be relatively calm so as not to tear the hurricane’s system apart. This particular atmospheric condition is one reason hurricanes form during the fall here in the N. Hemisphere in the first place. Finally, it needs to be the “perfect storm,” with an internal structure that allows it to efficiently use all of the warm ocean energy underneath it.

Scientists around the world agree that human emissions of heat trapping gases are already impacting our climate, including warming our oceans - thus making at least one condition for rapidly intensifying hurricanes more common. Global ocean temperature trends have been warming up as our growing population's needs have required more and more use of fossil fuels for production, transportation, and beyond.

Experts around the world have also indicated that using alternative energy forms would put fewer heat trapping gasses into the atmosphere. Solar and wind powered options among others have been presented as environmentally friendlier ways to help meet our population's growing needs. Encouraging the use of alternative energy options would be a great way to help future generations have access to power without further jeopardizing the impacts we can make to our atmosphere and ocean.

In the meantime, we're still not done with the 2017 hurricane season. Plus there will be more storms in the future that could still be of great risk for islands and costal areas. Extreme weather events could impact mainland areas as well. Just another reason scientists are encouraging us to be prepared for and resilient to these storms now and into the future.