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Global warming causing fewer hurricanes

Content Source: Florida Association of Realtors
MIAMI – Jan. 23, 2008

Intensifying one of the hottest debates in science, a new report concludes that global warming actually is diminishing the number of hurricanes that strike Florida and the rest of the United States – and the phenomenon is likely to continue.

The study, produced by two respected South Florida researchers, found that the planet’s oceans have been warming for more than a century. No surprise there, but this may be:

Those warmer oceans are producing stronger crosswinds that tend to suppress the development and growth of hurricanes, according to the scientists.

“We found a gentle decrease in the trend of U.S. landfalling hurricanes as global oceans warmed up,” said Chunzai Wang, an oceanographer and climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research facility on Virginia Key.

Some previous studies found that global warming was increasing the number and intensity of hurricanes, a conclusion that supported the conventional wisdom that warmer seas automatically turbocharge hurricane development.

This latest study, conducted by Wang and Sang-Ki Lee of the University of Miami, will be published Wednesday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Like all reports accepted by reputable scientific journals, it was scrutinized and reviewed by experts in the field.

Though it is still early in the process, the study raises questions about how the insurance industry, which sets rates based on risk models, will respond to reports that appear to contradict each other.

Many other studies have used computerized statistical models to predict the future consequences of global warming, but Wang and Lee conducted a rigorous “observational” examination of records reaching back to 1854.

They found that nearly every ocean on Earth has warmed since then, producing a variety of effects including stronger crosswinds, a phenomenon called wind shear.

When they matched those findings with records of hurricanes that have struck the United States, they discovered a correlation that illustrates the danger of making assumptions about the climate and challenges some previous findings and predictions.

“The increased wind shear coincides with a weak but consistent downward trend in U.S. landfalling hurricanes, a reliable measure of hurricanes over the long term,” the report found.

Interestingly, the researchers found that warmer temperatures in the tropical Atlantic decrease wind shear, while warmer temperatures in the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans increase shear – but the winds produced over the Pacific and Indian oceans are most important.

“Warmings in the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans win the competition and produce increased wind shear, which reduces U.S. landfalling hurricanes,” the report concludes.

The study represents another salvo in the war between two camps of hurricane researchers.

Both groups agree that global warming is occurring, but they differ sharply about what effect – if any – it’s having on hurricane development.

One side says that hurricanes are forming more frequently than they did a century or more ago, maybe even twice as often, and are growing more powerful, largely as a result of warmer oceans.

The other side acknowledges a decades-long upswing in hurricane activity. But those researchers say that when you smooth out the peaks and valleys (and account for numerous storms that could not be detected before satellites and hurricane hunter flights), hurricanes are forming at about the same rate – or possibly less frequently – than in the past.

“This study is one more piece of evidence countering the exaggerated claims by a small group of scientists that warming trends in tropical oceans have been contributing to major increases in hurricane activity,” said Stanley Goldenberg, a NOAA researcher who has been skeptical of previous reports of a link between global warming and more hurricanes.

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