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Hurricanes and Climate

Difficulty
Time Required Long (2-4 weeks)
Prerequisites Good computer skills
Material Availability Readily Available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No issues

Abstract

The past few years have histories of extremely powerful and dangerous storms. Storms have also become more numerous over the last few years. To investigate potential effects of climate on hurricane number and strength, in this project you will study the effects of El Niño on hurricanes.

Objective

The goal of this project is to study the historic relationship between the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the number and strength of hurricanes, either in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

Credits

Written by Frank Niepold, Climate Education Fellow, NOAA Climate Program Office

Edited by Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Hurricanes and Climate" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 30 June 2014. Web. 30 Sep. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/OceanSci_p007.shtml?from=Blog>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 30). Hurricanes and Climate. Retrieved September 30, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/OceanSci_p007.shtml?from=Blog

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Last edit date: 2014-06-30

Introduction

Is global warming causing an increase in hurricane intensity? Consider the following causal chain:

  • Greenhouse warming is contributing to the global tropical sea surface temperature increase (still controversial).
  • Global tropical sea surface temperature is increasing.
  • Global hurricane intensity increases with increasing sea surface temperature.
  • Global hurricane intensity is increasing.

Note: However, we are still working on this last link. The statement that "greenhouse warming is" cannot conclusively be linked to the "contributing to the global tropical sea surface temperature increase" yet. There are numerous papers just beginning to make this link, but climatologists predict that extreme events, like hurricanes, will be stronger and more frequent as the man-made climate warming increases. (For more information, see GFDL, 2006.) The timing of this increase is important. Many scientists are finding evidence that support the assertion that we are already seeing this increase in the stronger and more frequent extreme events, due to man-made causes (i.e., fossil fuel emissions.)

The story may be even more complex! Greenhouse warming may also influence hurricanes through changes in pre-existing natural cycles (e.g. El Niño), atmospheric circulation patterns, and ocean mixed layer depth. More research is needed on the global climate dynamics of hurricanes.

Multi-decadal Fluctuations in Atlantic Hurricane Activity

Historically, scientists have thought that the Atlantic hurricane activity has exhibited very strong multi-decadal variability, with alternating periods lasting several decades of generally above-normal or below-normal activity. These multi-decadal fluctuations in hurricane activity result nearly entirely from differences in the number of hurricanes and major hurricanes forming from tropical storms first named in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean Sea.

Hurricane seasons during 1995-2004 have averaged 13.6 tropical storms, 7.8 hurricanes, 3.8 major hurricanes, and with an average Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index (NWS, 2006) of 159% of the median. NOAA classifies all but two of these ten seasons (El Niño years of 1997 and 2002) as above normal, and six of these years as hyperactive. If the 2005 season verifies as predicted, it will be the seventh hyperactive season in the last 11 years.

In contrast, during the preceding 1970-1994 period, hurricane seasons averaged 9 tropical storms, 5 hurricanes, and 1.5 major hurricanes, with an average ACE index of only 75% of the median. NOAA classifies twelve (almost one-half) of these 25 seasons as being below normal, only three as being above normal (1980, 1988, 1988), and none as being hyperactive.

What is the relationship between hurricanes and El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO)? In general, warm ENSO episodes are characterized by an increased number of tropical storms and hurricanes in the eastern Pacific and a decrease in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

  • Atlantic Ocean: It is believed that El Niño conditions suppress the development of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic; and that La Niña (cold conditions in the equatorial Pacific) favor hurricane formation.
  • Pacific Ocean: El Niño tends to increase the numbers of tropical storms in the Pacific Ocean.

(Source: McPhaden and Soreide, date unknown.)

To help answer these questions NOAA has developed the Historical Hurricane Tracks tool. This interactive mapping application allows students to search and display maps using Atlantic Basin and East-Central Pacific Basin tropical cyclone data (NOAA, 2005). In this project, you will use the Historical Hurricane Tracks tool to gather information about the number and strength of past hurricane seasons. You will use this data to see if there is a correlation between ENSO and the number and/or strength of hurricanes in either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:

  • hurricane-related terms:
    • eye of the storm,
    • storm surge,
    • tropical depression,
    • watch and warning information,
    • eyewall,
    • sea surface temperature,
    • Saffir-Simpson scale;
  • El Niño Southern Oscillation,
  • La Niña.

Questions

  • How do hurricanes form?

Bibliography

Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:

  • computer with Internet access.

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Experimental Procedure

Use the Historical Hurricane Tracks tool to gather hurricane data to study the hurricane/climate connection. Here's how:

  1. Open the Historical Hurricane Tracks tool (NOAA, 2005) http://hurricane.csc.noaa.gov/hurricanes/viewer.html.
  2. In the Find tab, select the Query by Climatology function.

    NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


  3. Select the region to be studied (e.g., the "Atlantic Basin" is selected).

    NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


  4. Select a single storm category or multiple storm categories. To select a range of categories, hold down the "shift" key. To select multiple individual storm categories, hold down the control (PC) or Apple (Mac) key.
    1. Select one or more category options (Saffir-Simpson hurricane strength).

      NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


    2. If your investigation centers on the hurricane climate connection related to ENSO, you can select a checkbox for El Niño or La Niña years.

      NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


    3. Alternatively, you can select a single year (which makes isolating the hurricane tracks easier). You can make a list of El Niño and La Niña years from NOAA's "El Niño" website (NOAA, 2004). Select one or more years and, optionally, months:

      NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


  5. Once you have made all of your selections, click the "Submit" button.
  6. The Historical Hurricane Tracks viewer will display the tracks of the selected hurricanes.

    NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


  7. Numerous tools will help view, select, and download the data.

    NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


  8. To identify an individual hurricane, click on the map and zoom in to that location enough to select the track for more information.
  9. Select the "Identify" button, and then click on the track of the hurricane of interest.

    NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


  10. The information will be displayed below the "results" tab for the date and location you clicked. The results show the date, the hurricane name, the maximum wind speed (in nautical miles per hour, or knots), the central pressure (in millibars) and the Saffir-Simpson category.

    NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


    NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


  11. The results of the hurricane track visualization can be printed or the selected data can be "extracted" for use with GIS mapping software.

    NOAA Hurricane Tracks screenshot


  12. Construct a table of hurricane data for El Niño and non-El Niño years. Do you find evidence for more hurricanes in the Pacific Basin during El Niño years? Is there evidence for greater hurricane strength? Do you find evidence for fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin during El Niño years? Is there evidence for lesser hurricane strength?
  13. More advanced students should test the statistical significance of the results. You can learn about how to use a t-test in the Science Buddies project Sunspot Cycles.

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Variations

  • Have the intensity of hurricanes increased over the last few years? (i.e. the number of Category 4 or 5 increased over the last few years?) What evidence can you construct to back up your ideas?
  • Has the sea surface temperature increased over the last few years? Has this increased the number of severe hurricanes?

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The Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

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