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Big Storms Only Get Bigger with Warming Temperatures

Jan 30, 2015 05:51 PM EST
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Storm Brian batters UK with 80mph winds

Scientists have long debated whether warming temperatures around the globe would mean a stormier atmosphere. And while that doesn't seem to be the case, new research has revealed that big storms are only going to get bigger, while small storms are going to shrink.

"Put more simply, powerful storms are strengthened at the expense of weaker storms," lead author Frederic Laliberte, from the University of Toronto, said in a press release. "We believe atmospheric circulation will adapt to this less efficient form of heat transfer and we will see either fewer storms overall or at least a weakening of the most common, weaker storms."

To better explain this phenomenon, researchers compare the atmosphere to a heat engine that requires fuel to do work. As an air mass near the surface is warmed by the Sun and moves closer to the Equator, it takes up water via evaporation. And the warmer the air mass is, the more water it takes up. The once the air reaches the Equator, it rises into the atmosphere and eventually cools as it radiates heat out into space.

Then, the water vapor condenses and forms cumulus clouds, releasing heat and pulling in air that produces the thunderstorms we see in the sky.

"By viewing the atmospheric circulation as a heat engine, we were able to rely on the laws of thermodynamics to analyze how the circulation would change in a simulation of global warming," Laliberte explained. "We used these laws to quantify how the increase in water vapor that would result from global warming would influence the strength of the atmospheric circulation."

What they found was that as global warming causes our oceans to increasingly evaporate, more water vapor enters the air. And while you may assume that that would mean more storms overall, it actually limits the strength of atmospheric circulation unevenly - causing big storms to get bigger, and smaller ones to weaken.

And as we know, usually when there is a thunderstorm there is also lightning. And a recent study showed that with climate change, lightning strikes are to occur 50 percent more often - though where they will strike remains unclear.

The latest findings were published in the journal Science.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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