The ‘800 pound gorilla’ in the Gulf of Mexico that could supercharge hurricanes this season

Forecasters expect a busy Atlantic hurricane season in 2022, with a 65 percent chance of an above-average season. There is also a wildcard in the mix that raises the risk of more severe storms in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

Between 14 and 21 tropical storms could become powerful enough to be named this season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in its report. seasonal outlook brief, which was released today. The average Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1, typically has about 14 named storms. Another prominent prediction of Colorado State University predicted 19 named storms this year.

NOAA expects six to 10 storms intensify into hurricanes. NOAA also predicts between three and six major hurricanes, ranked as a Category 3 or higher with wind speeds of at least 111 miles per hour.

There is also a disturbing development in the Gulf of Mexico. The loop currenta stream of hot water, has moved surprisingly far north for this time of year† The current, which flows into the sea like a river, moves warmer waters from the Caribbean to generally cooler waters closer to the US Gulf Coast. That’s especially worrying news for the season because hurricanes feed on heat energy.

“It’s a higher-octane fuel,” said Nick Shay, an oceanography professor at the University of Miami. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the Gulf.”

Shay is concerned that the Loop Current’s current behavior resembles the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season — when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma ripped through Gulf Coast communities.

“In 2005 we have Hurricane Trifecta in the Gulf of Mexico,” Shay said. Both Katrina and Rita exploded into Category 5 storms after crossing paths with the warmer waters of the Loop Current. Hurricanes Ida in 2021 and Harvey in 2017 were also amplified by the loop current

The water of the Loop Current is also saltier. Differences in temperature and salinity between the loop current and the rest of the Gulf limit the mixing of ocean waters, which can normally cause surface temperatures to drop.

As a result, the current traps heat at much deeper depths than the surrounding Gulf. Water temperatures of 78 degrees Fahrenheit in the flow can reach 500 feet below the surface. Outside the flow, those kinds of temperatures usually only reach 30 feet below the surface. “It’s a big difference,” Shay says.

But Shay cautions that it’s too early to say if anything similar to 2005 could happen this season. It depends on whether storms are moving in the direction of the loop current (or in the direction of large spinning pools of hot water spinning away from the flow, called vortices). Whether the loop current can successfully drive storms also depends on whether the favorable atmospheric conditions and low wind shear.

Strong windshield, changes in wind speed and direction, can destabilize or weaken a storm. But a weather pattern called La Niña is expected to keep wind shear low throughout hurricane season, a factor that could increase the likelihood of stronger storms.

NOAA also pointed to an “improved” West African monsoon affecting this year’s Atlantic season. The West African monsoon, a major wind system, can create stronger easterly waves that “sow many of the strongest and longest-lived hurricanes in most seasons,” NOAA says in its season. outlook

Stronger hurricanes are expected to become more common as climate change warms the world’s oceans. Warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Caribbean Seas are also likely to boost hurricane activity this season, NOAA said today.

There are also indications that hurricanes have started… intensify faster and retain their strength longer after coming ashore as global average temperatures rise. The Loop Current’s warm vortices also seem to trap more heat than in the past, Shay says, though scientists can’t yet determine why.

If NOAA’s predictions for 2022 come true, it would be the seventh consecutive supernormal season for the Atlantic Ocean.


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