Measuring how warming oceans fuel stronger hurricanes

Satellites and underwater sensors measure ocean temperatures. Scientists and meteorologists combine this with other weather data to track storms and help prepare for emergencies.

hurricane irma 1

Tracking storms and weather patterns accurately has become even more critical as weather records fall like bowling pins.

What causes hurricanes? How are ocean temperatures monitored across thousands of square miles? What kinds of sensors are used? How is this data converted into actionable intelligence to save lives and protect property? What role does global warming have to play?

We should all know this given the devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

What causes hurricanes?

Hurricanes are severe storms with winds that rotate at 74 miles per hour or more around a central, low-pressure core. They result from weather disturbances that pull in warm surface air to interact with warm seawater. Hurricanes occur close to the equator where the seawater is hot enough to power the storms and the rotation of the Earth makes them spin.

Warm seawater evaporates and is dragged aloft when converging winds collide and turn upwards. At higher altitudes, water vapor condense into clouds and rain, releasing heat that warms the surrounding air, causing it to rise as well. As the air far above the sea rushes upward, even more warm moist air spirals in from along the surface. Hurricanes gain strength as long as they remain over warm water and it’s top isn’t sheared. They weaken and break apart over land or as they lose touch with the hot water powering them. “Recent studies have shown a link between ocean surface temperatures and tropical storm intensity – warmer waters fuel more energetic storms”. (Source: NOAA)

“Storms feed off of latent heat, which is why scientists think global warming is strengthening storms. Extra heat in the atmosphere or ocean nourishes storms; the more heat energy that goes in, the more vigorously a weather system can churn. Extra water vapor in the atmosphere is making storms wetter. During the past 25 years, satellites have measured a 4 percent rise in water vapor in the air column”, according to the NASA Earth Observatory.

Measuring ocean temperatures

On the Surface: Sea surface temperature (SST) is mostly collected from satellite based sensors. Sensors measure temperature from the infrared and the microwave radiations from the ocean to calculate the temperature. NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites orbit the Earth approximately 14 times per day collecting SST data. These satellite readings are validated with those from thousands of floats in the oceans measuring temperature and salinity.

Underwater: Satellite reading are best for measuring surface temperatures as they rely on radiation from the water. Specialized sensors and data loggers are needed to measure temperature below the surface. The ONSET HOBO Deep Ocean Temperature Data Logger is one of the most widely used systems. Its robust titanium housing is designed to withstand ocean extremes of depth and temperature. It can gather data for months at a time which can be analyzed with HOBOware software tools.

Data sources and visualization

The National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides timely access to global environmental data and information from satellites of weather conditions. Iowa State University provides comprehensive weather data conditions from its Environmental Mesonet.

hurricane irma 3 ESRI

Esri ArcGIS provides contextual tools for mapping and spatial reasoning to explore data. Insights can be shared through Esri StoryMaps incorporating maps, images and graphics. Esri supports groups responding to hurricane/cyclone disasters with software, data, imagery, project services, and technical support. Requests for support can be made here.

WSV3's dynamic 3D GIS mapping system ingests and styles ESRI Shapefile data to deliver precise weather graphics. It links together, synchronizes, and smoothly animates different data layers on a single timeline system. It also integrates METAR data from the NOAA National Weather Service. "WSV3's NEXRAD radar display is optimized for the lowest data latency delays so far achieved in any system, and this helps meteorologists monitor near-land hurricanes by offering a real-time look at wind velocity in and around the eyewall”, explained developer Paul Maravelias.

hurricane irma 2 NASA Earth Observatory

Global warming and climate change

“As global temperatures continue to rise, climate scientists have said this is what we should expect—more huge storms, with drastic impacts. Major storms are falling outside their normal range (Irma is the easternmost on record), and at strange times of the year”, explains Sabrina Shankman explains in Inside Climate News. This Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization covers climate change, energy and the environment.

"You would hope that a tragedy of this magnitude would be a wake-up call for folks who have been staunchly denying climate change," said Sara Chieffo, vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. But she said she's seen no sign of changed hearts or minds among climate science deniers who represent the communities devastated by Harvey, which also happens to be an energy industry epicenter”, writes Marianne Lavelle.

Here’s how to help as this debate rages on and temperatures rise:

“Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head. And pretend that he just doesn't see? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. The answer is blowin' in the wind,” sang Bob Dylan.

Hurricane winds, unfortunately swirl at over 150 mph. But the message is clear: it's time to pay attention to global warming.

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