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Hurricanes 3 million years ago hint at storms to come

Hurricane and tropical storm development from three million years ago might give today’s forecasters a good blueprint for 21st-century storms.

Researchers looked at storm development from the Pliocene era, roughly three million years ago. The period was chosen because it was the last time the Earth had as much carbon dioxide as it does now. Changes in climate from carbon dioxide can play a major role in storm formation and intensity.

Using computer models and simulations, the team found an increase in the average intensity during the period and the storms most often moved into higher latitudes—to a more northward direction.

“There seems to be a limit on how strong these ancient storms might be, but the number getting close to the limit appears to be larger during warmer periods,” says Robert Korty, associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

Will this year’s hurricane forecast be more accurate?

“They reached their peak intensity at higher latitudes, following an expansion of tropical conditions with warming. It is consistent with smaller changes in the same patterns that we have observed over recent decades and project to continue over the next 100 years. I think it gives us greater confidence in some trends we are witnessing about how storms may change in future years.”

Researchers today know that the oceans continued to be relatively warm during the Pliocene era, though there has been some uncertainty where waters were warmest.  The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows the increase in average intensity and in the poleward expansion occurred regardless of where the greatest change in temperatures occurred in the Pliocene.

Korty says the findings add more evidence “that future storms are likely to be stronger in their intensity and to remain strong even as they move out of the tropics.”

The National Science Foundation funded the study.

Source: Texas A&M University

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