Hotter ocean temperatures from global warming likely increased Idalia’s destructive power by at least 40-50%
Posted on 11 September 2023 by Guest Author
Hurricane Idalia charged ashore into Florida’s Big Bend coast on Wednesday morning, Aug. 30, as a powerful high-end Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds, bringing an extremely dangerous storm surge, destructive winds, and torrential rains to an area unused to major hurricanes. The story of Idalia’s devastation has yet to be written, but there is little doubt that human-caused climate change will be identified as a key contributor.
Hurricanes are heat engines that take heat energy out of the ocean and convert it to the kinetic energy of their winds. A hotter ocean will allow hurricanes to grow more powerful, assuming that the other factors that power hurricanes, including low wind shear and a moist atmosphere, are present.
As far back as 1987, MIT hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel theorized that the wind speeds in hurricanes can be expected to increase about 5% for every one degree Celsius (1.8°F) increase in tropical ocean temperature, assuming that the average wind speed near the surface of the tropical oceans does not change. Computer modeling has found a slightly smaller magnitude (4%) for the increase.
A 4-5% increase in hurricane winds may not seem like a big deal, but damage from a hurricane increases exponentially with an increase in winds. For example, according to NOAA, a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds will do 10 times the damage of a Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph winds. This includes damage not only from winds, but also from storm surge, inland flooding, and tornadoes. Bottom line: A 4-5% increase in winds yields about a 40-50% increase in the destructive potential of a hurricane (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Damage multiplier for hurricane winds compared to a minimal Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph winds. A doubling of the wind speed from 75 mph to 150 mph increases potential damage by a factor of 256. (Image credit: NOAA)
According to NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, sea surface temperatures along Idalia’s path through the western Caribbean and eastern Gulf of Mexico were about 1-2 degrees Celsius (1.8-3.6°F) above the long-term average. Using the theoretical results above, this increase in sea surface temperatures equated to a 50-100% increase in Idalia’s destructive power.
It thus appears reasonable to theorize that increased sea surface temperatures of about 1 degree Celsius since preindustrial time in the Gulf of Mexico from human-caused global warming led to a 40-50% increase in Idalia’s destructive power by increasing the hurricane’s winds by at least 4-5%. This could well be an underestimate of the influence of human-caused climate change on the record-warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf, since the unusual atmospheric circulation patterns responsible for the hot and windless conditions experienced there this summer, which contributed to the record sea surface temperatures, could have had a climate change connection.
Figure 2. Departure of August sea surface temperature from average over the Gulf of Mexico, 1910-2022. (Image credit: NOAA)