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writing for godot

Bigger, Stronger Storms? Take it to the Bank.

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Written by Zepp Jamieson   
Wednesday, 13 September 2017 05:11

In the wake of Harvey and Irma, it's time to take a look at climate change. The usual bad actors are out there, trying to downplay the damages the storms did. Ann Coulter was so egregiously nasty in her approach that she actually drew a reprimand from White House Chief of Staff Kelly.

Since the storms did do enormous damage, the carbon apologists have gone to their first fall-back position—don't talk about it. They've tried telling us that now is not the time to discuss climate change, and that by doing so “liberals” are engaging in the most shameless of political opportunism.

The problem with that is there is no better time than now. So let's talk about it.

Harvey and Irma were both extraordinary storms, created by unusual meteorological and temperature related situations. They wound up as unique, with Harvey stalling and dumping up to 55” of rain on south Texas and Louisiana. Irma became a cat 5 where no storm had become a cat 5 before, and raked nearly all of the northern coast of Cuba—several hundred miles—before finally turning north as a Cat 3 and hitting Florida as “only” a Cat 4.

These are unique storms. However, they are also harbinger storms.

Because the climate and the oceans are warming, we will see more and more “unique” situations like this. I will guarantee it.

There's two changing factors critical to the formation of tropical storms (there are others, such as the Coriolis Force, but they are constants).

First is the temperature of the water. For a tropical system to form, a sea surface temperature of 26.5°C (79.7°F) is required. Further, that temperature has to reach a depth of about 50 meters (164 feet) because these storms churn the water up to that depth. If a storm is on disturbed water that is now only 25°C at the surface, the storm will peter out and die.

This is a constant, world wide. Since the overall average temperature of the oceans is 16°C, there's only limited areas where such storms can form.

However, the warmer the sea surface temperature, the more energy the storm can take from that warm water (and warm water has far more energy than warm dry air—about 10,000 times as much), and the more powerful a storm can become.

The oceans are warming: Between .2°C and .4°C, depending on location. The warming is most intense in shallow waters, such as the Gulf of Mexico and there's actually been some cooling in the polar regions with cold fresh water spilling from Antarctica and Greenland. Areas of water about 26.5°C are spreading, and those areas subject to seasonal variation are staying warmer longer. Vast tropical regions such as the West Pacific and the Gulf often average well above 30°C, sometimes all the way up to 35°C, or 95°F.

So, more energy for tropical storms to spawn in, lasting longer, and over a wider area. What do you suppose happens next?

Then there is air temperature. It's not a significant factor as a source of energy, since the energy required to warm air is, as noted, only about 1/10,000th that of water. But it does have one very significant contributing factor: water vapor. There's a formula called the Clausius-Clapeyron equation that tells us that when air is in the range of -50°C to 100°C (which pretty much covers all of Earth's climate except for extremely cold regions), the capacity of the air to hold water vapor increases by about 7% for every degree Celsius. The warmer the air, the more vapor it can hold.

And the air is overall getting warmer. We know that, too. There is no doubt.

One last factor: moist air is lighter and less dense than dry air. Thus it takes less energy to get it up to a given speed like, oh, say, 200 kilometers an hour. 125 miles an hour. That's a Cat 3.

Now, climatologists don't like to say global warming will cause more hurricanes, and that they will be stronger. Part of the reluctance stems for not being able to point to a time frame, and because climate is a massively complicated science, they are aware that feedback mechanisms can and almost certainly will affect any predictions they make—in either direction. So they don't.

But I'm not a climatologist. And I'm not going to make a specific prediction.

But the science is clear: as global warming continues, the area that can support tropical storm formation will increase. With greater area to form, that means more storms. And because the water and the air are warmer, they will flourish. Tropical depressions will be more likely to become tropical storms, and tropical storms will be more likely to become hurricanes. And because they have more energy and more moisture, more monsters like Harvey and Irma will develop.

Scientists have to qualify their projections because some feedback mechanism they don't know about might affect the climate. But without such an unknown mechanism, this is what will happen. No ifs, ands, or buts.

I understand why they take that approach, but in terms of day-to-day reality, they are stuck, like the rest of us, in the position of a man standing in a pool of gasoline, watching corporations toss lit matches and hoping there is something overlooked in the chemical nature of gasoline that will prevent it from catching fire.

 

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