Global Warming and Hurricanes

Every hurricane is spawned from two key ingredients: warm water and damp warm air. This is why hurricanes are so prevalent in tropical areas.

The majority of hurricanes in the Atlantic begin to form when thunderstorms occurring around the west coast of Africa start to drift out over the ocean in places where the waters are generally warmer, at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit, where they are met with equatorial winds.

Hurricanes begin to develop as warm, moist air near the ocean’s surface starts to rise rapidly. It then mixes with cooler air which causes the warm water vapor to condense and form storm clouds, along with drops of rain. Latent heat is then released by the condensation, and the cool air above is warmed. This causes the warm air to rise and then more space is created for humid air flow from below.

As the cycle of the hurricane progresses, the storm draws in more of the warm, moist air, and more heat is then transferred to the atmosphere from the surface of the ocean. This continuous heat transfer creates a wind pattern that violently spins around a contrastingly calm center, also referred to as the “eye”, similar to the way water spirals down a drain.

Near the surface of the water, converging winds collide, resulting in more water vapor being pushed upward, stimulating the circulation of warm air, and accelerating wind speeds. Strong winds that are blowing consistently at higher altitudes will simultaneously pull the rising air away from the center of the storm and send it swirling back into the hurricane’s cyclone pattern. At high altitudes (usually above 30,000 feet), high-pressure air also pulls heat away from the center of the storm and cools the rising air. The speed of the wind continues increasing as high-pressure air is drawn into the storm’s low-pressure center. There are three different stages that a thunderstorm must pass through before it becomes a full-fledged hurricane. These three stages are determined by wind speed and are as follows:
• Tropical depression—wind speeds less than 38 miles per hour
• Tropical storm—wind speeds between 39 mph to 73 mph
• Hurricane—wind speeds greater than 74 mph

Although all scientists agree on the details of hurricane formation and function for the most part, as well as their increasing frequency and severity, they also disagree on one big point.

While some scientists believe that the increasing prevalence of hurricanes is a direct result of human activity and global warming, others believe that the increase in intense hurricanes throughout the past decade is simply due to natural salinity, as well as temperature changes deep in the Atlantic Ocean. In essence, they argue that the hurricanes are part of a environmental cycle that naturally shifts back and forth every 40 to 60 years or so.

Although the scientific community is not 100% in agreement as to the cause of the steadily increasing hurricanes, there are three things that they all have no choice but to acknowledge:
• Air and water temperatures worldwide are steadily rising.
• Deforestation, and other greenhouse gas emitting human activities are currently contributing greatly to global temperature changes at a rate much higher than ever in the past.
• Neglecting to take action now to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases will likely lead to more severe hurricanes in the future that will also occur more often.