Aug 24, 2018 - Science

Hurricane Lane is defying the odds in taking on Hawaii

Note: Temperature anomalies are relative to the 1985 to 2012 average; Data: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Map: Chris Canipe/Axios

Hurricane Lane is already a landmark storm, having set a record for the strongest hurricane to get so close to Hawaii since modern records began. It could soon set more milestones if it moves within 65 nautical miles of Maui and Oahu on Friday and Saturday.

Why this matters: Hawaii has historically been protected against hurricanes because sea surface temperatures near the islands are typically too cold to support a significant tropical cyclone. That's not the case this year, and is not expected to be the case in the future as the ocean warms in response to increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the air.

The records: Hurricane Lane is already the strongest hurricane to track within 300 miles of Hawaii, according to NOAA. There is also no record of a hurricane tracking within 65 nautical miles of Maui or Honolulu since statehood in 1959.

The details: Right now, an El Niño event focused on the Central Pacific, known as a "Modiki" El Niño, is developing, bringing higher sea surface temperatures than average to the area near Hawaii. This allows tropical storms and hurricanes to survive further northward than they otherwise would have.

Climate studies also show that warming oceans as a result of increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will increasingly put Hawaii at risk of hurricanes in the future.

  • There are other influences on hurricanes from climate change that are already occurring, as studies have shown that such storms are already carrying more water vapor than they used to, which is producing bigger rainfall totals.

Flashback: This came into play with Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which was the biggest rainstorm in U.S. history. One study by researchers in the Netherlands found the storm produced 15% more intense precipitation due to climate change than it would have if it hit at the beginning of the 20th century. They also found that Harvey used to be a 1-in-2,400-year event, but is now more common, on the order of about 1-in-800 years.

Another study, by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found that Harvey's rainfall was increased by between 19% and 38%, and the chances of such a devastating rainstorm has tripled since the 1900s, due to climate change.

And another study, published in the journal Earth's Future, found that excess ocean heat in the Gulf of Mexico led to Harvey's deluge. "Harvey could not have produced so much rain without human‐induced climate change," the study stated.

Be smart: Computer model projections, and some observational evidence, also support the idea that tropical cyclones (a term that includes hurricanes and typhoons) will become more intense overall, as the world warms. There is scientific disagreement, though, over whether this is already happening.

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