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MIT Study Claims Stronger, More Frequent Hurricanes in the Future

Jul 09, 2013 02:40 PM EDT

Stronger and more frequent hurricanes and tropical cyclones are likely to occur if current trends in climate change continue, according to a leading hurricane expert and author of a controversial new study.

Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts institute of Technology (MIT), believes that by the end of this century greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to a 10- to 40-percent increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones and that each storm may be as much as 45 percent more powerful.

The storm surge will be strongest in the North Pacific, while the North Atlantic and the southern Indian Ocean will also see increased activity.

Emanuel's conclusions are based on six computer models, which, using weather data and historical records, simulated 600 annual storms from 1950 to 2005. By running the models forwards in time, Emanuel was able to predict the increase of storm strength and activity. The models predicted that the storms that made landfall will be 55 percent more intense.

"It is important to emphasize that most studies suggest that the frequency of the highest category tropical cyclones (those of Category 3 and higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale) should increase as the globe warms," Emanuel said, according to USA Today. "There is less agreement about the frequency of the weakest category of storms."

In other words, Emanuel's conclusions are far from definitive. Other climate models have seen mixed results in simulating storm scenarios with global warming. Additionally, it generally takes more than one study to overturn the scientific consensus - which states that while tropical storms are likely to become more powerful, their frequency will decrease , as evidenced by this 2012 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry, who was not part of the study and is a skeptic of climate change, told USA Today, "The conclusions from this study rely on a large number of assumptions, many of which only have limited support from theory and observations and hence are associated with substantial uncertainties. Personally, I take studies that project future tropical cyclone activity from climate models with a grain of salt."

Incidentaly, as hurricane season began this year, NOAA reported that 2013 is predicted to be "an active or extremely active" year for hurricanes.

As TIME's Bryan Walsh put it, it probably doesn't matter if Emanuel is right or not. Hurricanes will continue to batter our coasts no matter whether climate change increases their intensity or frequency or both.

"Whatever climate change does to hurricanes," Walsh wrote, "We need to be ready."

Emanuel's research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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