Science in Brief

Warming waters fueled Hurricane Harvey

Photo of Hurricane Harvey taken at the International Space Station.
Photo of Hurricane Harvey taken at the International Space Station.
Image: NASA.
For years, scientists have warned that climate change hastened by human pollution would make waters warmer and supercharge hurricanes, making them even deadlier.

    Now, in an analysis published online, researchers in an international team write that ocean heat was the highest on record both globally and in the Gulf of Mexico just before Hurricane Harvey. That heat fueled the catastrophic storm that flooded Houston in August 2017.
   The ocean heat was “realized in the atmosphere as moisture, and then as latent heat in record-breaking heavy rainfalls,” the researchers explain.   
    Hurricanes, also known as tropical cyclones, form when two factors are present. The first is a weather disturbance, such as a thunderstorm, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The second is water that is at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  
    Hurricanes  -- called typhoons in the region of the Philippines or the South China Sea -- form over tropical oceans with the interaction of warm air and warm seawater. The rotation of the Earth makes them spin.     
    Given the potential for more violent storms brought on by climate change, scientists recommend that cities adapt to the evolving threat. Measures include:
  • Engineering mitigation, such as levees and seawalls and flood control.
  • Better adherence to building codes. For example, preventing construction on flood plains.  
  • Better management of water and drainage systems.
  • A more robust development of evacuation routes and disaster plans.
  • Flood insurance that matches the growing risk.

     The paper is "Hurricane Harvey links to Ocean Heat Content and Climate Change Adaptation," by Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, et al.

MEASURING CLIMATE CHANGE: A new satellite will provide vital carbon balance information that will help scientists better understand the progression of climate change.
    The satellite will be a tool for the United Nations' work on climate change related to the Paris climate accord, according to researchers from the University of Copenhagen. Instead of photography, the satellite uses low-frequency passive microwaves to measure the biomass (the total mass of organisms in a given area) of above-ground vegetation.
    The satellite can show emissions by country, according to the university. That means the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could use it in taking measurements for the Paris climate accord.
    Research on the satellite has been published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution: "Satellite passive microwaves reveal recent climate-induced carbon losses in African drylands," by Martin Brandt, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark, et al.


        Hurricanes and the measure of destruction

        Did climate change cause hurricane Harvey?

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