Hurricane Beryl fueled by ‘crazy’ ocean temperatures, experts say | Hurricanes

Hurricane Beryl, which struck Texas on Monday after wreaking havoc across the Caribbean, was fueled by “absolutely insane” ocean temperatures that are likely to spawn more violent storms in the coming months, scientists have warned.

Beryl left more than 2 million people without power after making landfall near Houston as a Category 1 storm after initially moving through the Caribbean as a Category 5 hurricane with winds of up to 165 mph (265 kph), killing 11 people.

There has never been a Category 5 Atlantic hurricane this early in the year, with most major storms forming closer to September. However, Beryl quickly accelerated from a small storm to a Category 4 event in just two days.

Scientists say this deadly intensification was fueled by unusually high ocean temperatures along much of Beryl’s path. Seawater heated by the climate crisis has fueled the storm with extra energy over the past 10 days.

“Beryl would be amazing anyway, but to have it in June is completely unprecedented,” said Brian McNoldy, a climate scientist at the University of Miami. “It’s just remarkable to see such warm sea surface temperatures.

“I don’t think anyone would have expected this kind of outlier, it exceeded all expectations. With an ocean that is being affected by climate change, we are making extreme storms like this more likely.”

While ocean temperatures around the world are steadily rising as the planet warms from the burning of fossil fuels, the past year has been “extraordinary,” McNoldy said. Last year saw the warmest ocean ever recorded, with marine heatwaves ravaging 90% of the world’s oceans. This heat surge has barely stopped, with sea surface temperature records being broken every day for 12 months through March.

Line chart with two colored lines above a tangle of gray lines.

A stretch of the tropical Atlantic Ocean stretching from Central America to Africa, the so-called prime developing region, is the main spawning ground for most hurricanes and has been “astonishingly warm” in recent weeks, McNoldy said. Spots in the northern Atlantic have seen temperatures as much as 5C (9F) higher than normal in the past month.

Ocean temperatures in the region typically peak in September or October, but the extra heat has brought such conditions unusually early this year. “The Caribbean has actually been warmer than normal since mid-May, which is absolutely insane,” McNoldy said. “When the ocean already looks like it’s the peak of hurricane season, we get peak hurricanes.”

Meanwhile, temperatures across much of the Gulf of Mexico are “essentially bathwater warm,” said Alex DaSilva, chief hurricane expert at AccuWeather. “Those warm waters are at the surface and extend hundreds of feet down. Warm water acts as jet fuel for hurricanes, and it won’t be long before temperatures warm up again after Beryl.”

The continued high ocean temperatures are foreshadowing a potentially disastrous hurricane season, with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration predicting eight to 13 hurricanes through November, up from the usual seven. The onset of periodic La Niña weather conditions could further fuel such storms. “Beryl is a worrisome sign for the rest of the season,” McNoldy said. “This won’t be the last of these storms.”

While climate change isn’t necessarily increasing the total number of hurricanes, scientists have found evidence that storms are now becoming more intense, building faster, and even moving more slowly. Hurricanes are getting their power from warmer oceans, while they’re also producing heavier rainstorms because of the extra moisture trapped in the atmosphere by global warming.

A man assesses the damage after a tree fell on his neighbor’s house after Hurricane Beryl hit the Texas coast in Bay City. Photo: Eric Gay/AP

The ocean’s rising heat brings new threats in terms of damaging hurricanes – some scientists have called for a new “Category 6” classification for storms over 198 mph (319 km/h) – but also to the vast web of life, including humanity, that depends on the vast expanse of sea that covers 70% of the planet.

Oceans absorb vast amounts of human-made emissions and heat. This protects people on land from even worse temperature increases, but it also causes fish populations to decline, coral reefs and shellfish to disappear, seas to be deprived of oxygen, and potentially disrupts fundamental ocean currents.

Such dramatic changes to the oceans will leave an extraordinary legacy that extends beyond the individual lifespans of humans, scientists warn. “The time scale of the oceans is not as fast as the atmosphere,” Celeste Saulo, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said earlier this year. “Once a change is established, I would say it is almost irreversible on time scales that go from a hundred years to a millennial.”

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