The ‘800-pound gorilla’ in the Gulf of Mexico that could supercharge hurricanes this season

Forecasters expect a busy Atlantic hurricane season in 2022, with a 65% chance of an above-average season. There’s also a wildcard in the mix that raises the risk of stronger storms in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

Between 14 and 21 tropical storms could become powerful enough to be named this season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in its season outlook briefing, released today. The average Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1, typically has about 14 named storms. Another major forecast from Colorado State University called for 19 named storms this year.

NOAA expects 6 to 10 storms strengthen into hurricanes. NOAA also forecast between three and six major hurricanes, rated Category 3 or higher with winds of at least 111 miles per hour.

There is also a troubling development in the Gulf of Mexico. The Loop Current, a warm water stream, has moved surprisingly far north for this time of year. The current, flowing like a river through the sea, brings warmer water from the Caribbean to generally cooler waters closer to the US Gulf Coast. This is particularly worrying news for the season since hurricanes feed on thermal energy.

“It’s a higher octane fuel,” says Nick Shay, professor of oceanography at the University of Miami. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the Gulf.”

Shay worries that the current behavior of the loop current resembles the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season – when hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma ravaged Gulf Coast communities.

“In 2005, we have what’s called Hurricane Trifecta in the Gulf of Mexico,” Shay explains. Katrina and Rita explosively upgraded to Category 5 storms after crossing the warmer waters of the Loop Current. Hurricanes Ida in 2021 and Harvey in 2017 were also enhanced by the Loop Current.

The water in the Loop Current is also saltier. Differences in temperature and salinity between the Loop Current and the rest of the Gulf limit the mixing of ocean waters, which would normally lower surface temperatures.

As a result, the current retains heat at depths much deeper than the surrounding gulf. The water temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit in the current can reach up to 500 feet below the surface. Outside of the current, these types of temperatures generally only reach 100 feet below the surface. “It’s a big difference,” says Shay.

But Shay warns it’s too early to tell if something similar to 2005 could happen this season. It will depend on whether storms move into the loop current (or large circular pools of warm water that break away from the current, called eddies). The ability of the loop current to successfully supercharge storms will also depend on whether or not storms develop during favorable atmospheric conditions and low wind shear.

Strong wind shear, changes in wind speed and direction, can destabilize or weaken a storm. But a weather pattern called La Niña is expected to keep wind shear low throughout hurricane season, a factor that could increase the chances of stronger storms developing.

NOAA also pointed to an “enhanced” West African monsoon affecting the Atlantic season this year. The West African monsoon, a major wind system, can bring stronger easterly waves that “create many of the strongest and longest-lasting hurricanes in most seasons,” NOAA says in its seasonal outlook. .

Stronger hurricanes are expected to become more frequent as climate change warms the world’s oceans. Warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea are also expected to boost hurricane activity this season, NOAA said today.

There is also evidence that hurricanes have begun to intensify faster and retain strength longer after landfall as global average temperatures rise. The loop current’s hot eddies also appear to hold more heat than they did in the past, Shay says, although scientists can’t yet determine why.

If NOAA’s predictions for 2022 come true, it would be the seventh consecutive above-par season for the Atlantic.


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