TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Gulf of Mexico is not just record hot, water temperatures are far above anything observed before. With hurricane season heating up, the question is: what impact will this have on hurricanes?
The simple answer is, the hotter the water temperatures, the stronger a storm can get. Since hurricanes feed off of warm water, the heat is like steroids for storms. But just because a storm can get more intense, does not mean it will. There are many other factors at play.
Right now the average temperature of the entire sea surface of the Gulf is 88 degrees Fahrenheit, a remarkable 2.6 degrees F above normal. This is far and away the warmest the Gulf has been since records have been kept – 1.2 degrees F above record levels.
Take a look at the visual below from Michael Lowry, a hurricane specialist from South Florida. You can see just how far above record levels the heat is.
Here in the eastern Gulf sea surface temperatures have been running from 91 to 94, around record levels even for our shallow waters.
The reasons for the record hot water across the Atlantic and Gulf are many. Some of which are related to day-to-day weather and stagnant weather patterns. But underlying this is human-caused climate change. Over the past few decades, tropical waters have warmed around 2 degrees Fahrenheit. It is this baseline warming that hoists warm water into the record-hot territory.
So exactly what kind of impact does hot water have on hurricanes? Well, there is a calculation for that. For every 1-degree increase in sea surface temperature, a storm has the “potential” to get about 10% stronger.
With water temperatures 2.6 degrees F above normal, that means a storm with 150 mph max winds over Gulf waters with normal temperatures, could now attain winds max winds near 190 mph.
That lines up well with the below graphic, which shows maximum storm potential right now. On top, it shows the lowest pressure that could be obtained and on the bottom, it shows the maximum winds that could be attained.
Notice the deep blue over the Gulf of Mexico. That corresponds with a minimum pressure of 880 millibars and maximum winds of 195 mph. That’s about as intense as ever experienced in the Atlantic.
So now we know what the theoretical potential is. But that says nothing about the real world. In the real world, we have lots of other factors. Conditions are rarely ever perfect.
This summer, because of a strengthening El Niño there is likely to be stronger than normal wind shear across the Atlantic. That wind shear would help to weaken systems.
Also if any dry air is present around the storm or if the storm interacts with land – as it often does in the Gulf – that would also lower this maximum potential.
Bottom line: just because you have warmer water does not mean you will have stronger hurricanes, but it does make it more likely.
Thus, in the future, as waters continue to heat due to human-caused climate change, scientists expect a greater proportion of storms to reach major hurricane status. And the strongest storms, category 4 and 5’s, will continue to get more intense.