It was 3 a.m. in California on September 27, 2017. But Mayra Oyola Merced, a NASA expert, was instead sleeping. She was glued to her computer screen. She had advised her family in Puerto Rico weeks earlier to prepare for Hurricane Maria.
He saw the image on the screen as the one transmitted from the radar of Puerto Rico's weather service. It was a way to feel closer to home and support his own. But suddenly, the connection broke down and everything went black. This radar was in use for many decades and had withstanded many hurricanes. The image vanished did not bode well.
For weeks Mayra was unable to communicate with her family because of the cut in communications. It was good news: all were safe when she received it. She says, "It was a very difficult experience, especially when I lived it from the outside. I work studying these system dynamics and technology, but I couldn’t do anything for my family."
NASA scientist Mayra Oyola-Merced. / Mayra Oyola-Merced
Since then, almost five years have passed and the hurricane season, which officially runs from June through November, has once again begun. To form these systems, four ingredients are required: heat, energy stored in the ocean's upper layer; humidity above 26degC; favorable winds that are strong enough to keep the storm from disintegrating; rotation to create the characteristic spiral shape. This is due to the Earth's movement around its axis. Climate change is changing its dynamics. Oyola-Merced clarifies some of the doubts.
What does NASA do to help with hurricane science?
NASA is best known for its space program but its work has an important impact on climateology. NASA collaborates with partners such as the NOAA (National Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in order to assist in the analysis, prediction, and understanding of hurricanes. Its goal is to assist communities in preparing for and responding to these storms, and to minimize human and material loss.
How many hurricanes are there in a given season?
Looking back at the previous three seasons, 2020 was the second most active year for tropical cyclones. The third was 2021. This year's initial forecast indicates that the season will be more active than the initial forecasts for 2020 or 2021. Between 6 and 10 tropical storms could become hurricanes in 2022. Of those, 3 to 6 could also be hurricanes. Category 1 has winds between 119 and 153 km/h; Category 5 has winds up to 250 km/h.
Are hurricanes now easier to predict with the technology available or is climate change making it more difficult?
Some aspects of hurricanes are easier to predict. For example, forecasts of the weather were only accurate for a few days 40 years ago. On the other hand, forecasts can be made with accuracy of 7-10 days or more. This is possible thanks to satellites and computers, which give us more information about the atmosphere.
Climate change is also fostering new patterns that were not previously seen. Research shows that climate change does not increase the number of systems per season but actually strengthens them. We are witnessing more frequent seasons with hurricanes of higher intensity, particularly since 2005. These are rarer in the past, but are much more common now.
Additionally, strengthening takes place in a shorter time frame. This means that hurricanes can become a category 3 or 4 hurricane in 24 hours. Current prediction models face this challenge.
Hurricane Season is Extending?
Ocean temperature is a key factor in the development and strength of hurricanes. The oceans absorb 90% of heat from greenhouse gases. This could lead to an increase in hurricane season. We are already witnessing storms form out of season, sooner than expected.
What are other changes occurring in hurricane characteristics?
We will notice changes in the track, thermodynamics and rotation of hurricanes as ocean temperatures rise. The systems are reaching places previously unreachable or seldom seen like India. They are also more slow to move, especially after they have hit land. This makes them more dangerous.
This year also adds another element. This year adds another factor to the cycle called 'El Nino'. High rainy seasons are common during 'El Nino'. However, 'La Nina' is characterized more by active hurricane seasons. Both are natural phenomena, but climate change makes them worse. "La Nina" generates higher Atlantic temperatures, which are already warmer because of climate change. This means that hurricanes can become more intense and faster.
The hurricane is a natural process by which the Earth regulates itself. So why is it so worrying that there are more hurricanes?
Protecting life, property and the economy is our most fundamental concern. With the rise in hurricanes, the population is at greater risk. As a result, the number climate refugees and environmental migrants could increase. hurricanes can strike areas that aren't equipped to handle these types of systems.
Why are hurricanes moving closer to Europe?
Hurricanes are formed in the tropics with warm waters. When they approach regions where the water is warmer or colder (such northern Europe), they become weaker. It's like a car losing fuel. The energy balance changes due to climate change. Areas that were previously colder are now warmer, making the hurricane weakening less.
However, ocean temperatures are also changing, which is influencing the circulation patterns for the trade winds. Trade winds generally direct warm surface water from east to east, so they will approach places that were rare to see tropical thunderstorms in the past.
Can a Category 5 hurricane like Katrina reach Spain?
Although we don't know the exact extent of these hurricanes, recent years have seen them reach places that they never had before. Hurricane Sandy was one of the most shocking examples. It reached New York and Washington, places where hurricanes are rarely seen. It left incredible damage, including completely destroying subway stations in New York. We don't know for sure if this will happen but all signs point to it being possible. If it does happen, countries with coastlines, like Portugal or Spain, will be the first to be affected.
Are Europeans prepared for high-intensity hurricanes? How can you protect yourself from a hurricane?
If more hurricanes arrive, Europe's infrastructure might need to be strengthened. The most important thing for each person is to be informed and have access to the right information. The internet is full of misinformation. It is best to consult the information sources provided by local authorities. Get advice about the hazards in the area where you live. To find out if there is a risk of flooding in your area, or if you should evacuate the area to seek shelter elsewhere, consult the experts. It is recommended to have an emergency plan at home (canned food and bottled water, medication ). It is important to consider what we can do to prevent major problems.