Tropical storms have doubled in destructive
potential in the past 30 years because ocean surfaces have become warmer, according to a leading climate researcher.
This is the first time that an increase in the size, duration
and power of tropical storms has been linked to global warming.
The result could have a significant effect on British weather,
and have potentially disastrous consequences for the Caribbean, the west coast of the United States and Pacific countries
such as Japan.
Professor Kerry Emanuel, of the atmospheric, oceans and
climate research department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has studied data from all the severe storms - or
tropical cyclones - over the past 30 years.
He says they have been more intense and longer in duration,
and have generated far more power, than computer models had predicted. Prof Emanuel, an acknowledged world expert on the thermodynamics
of tropical cyclone research, told the Guardian he believed the power of the storms to create huge waves and mix the surface
water of the oceans could also effect ocean currents - particularly the Gulf Stream, which sends warm water northwards and
keeps Britain's climate milder than it otherwise would be.
Many scientists have predicted that the Gulf Stream could slow
or be "turned off" by the effect of increased fresh water entering the Arctic from melting ice.
But Prof Emanuel believes that the greater mixing of warm water
in the tropics could have the opposite effect - speeding up the currents and driving more warm water north.
Although there is no connection between his research and recent
observations in Iceland, temperatures in the North Atlantic have risen notably as as a direct result of a strong current flow
pushing farther north.
Prof Emanuel's findings, published in Nature magazine, follow
an inconclusive scientific debate about whether the frequency of storms is a natural phenomenon or a result of man-made climate
Climate models run through computers indicate that storms are
likely to become more severe, but this is the first evidence that this is already happening. What is surprising is that the
severity is far more pronounced than the computer models predicted.
According to the paper, the computer models estimated that
wind speeds would increase by 2 to 3% as a result of an already observed rise in the ocean temperature of .5C. Because of
the longer duration of storms, this would increase the total force exerted by the average hurricane by 8 to 12%.
However, Prof Emanuel's measurements of real winds show that
storms can pick up much greater intensity as the ocean waters mix.
During a storm, the winds cause the warm surface water to mix
with the cooler ocean below. Normally, this mixing would puts a brake on the power of the storm because of the overall reduction
in sea temperature caused by the mixing. But measurements show that it is not just the surface of the sea that has warmed
in recent decades - the layer underneath is also at a higher temperature.
This means the wave action that mixes the layers does not have
such a pronounced cooling effect as before and, as a result, the intensity of the storm remains significantly higher.
Prof Emanuel's view is that at least part of this increase
in ocean temperature is caused by man-made climate change.
"Whatever the cause, the near doubling of power dissipation
over the period of record should be a matter of some concern, as it is a measure of the destructive potential of tropical
Julian Heming, a tropical prediction scientist with the Met
Office in Exeter, said he did not question Prof Emanuel's measurements, but pointed out that there was disagreement among
scientists about whether the observed trend was man-made or part of a natural cycle.