Hybrid Hell

Don’t Just Worry About Winds and Storm Surges. Worry About the Rain.
The state of the universe.
Oct. 29 2012 4:34 PM

Hybrid Hell

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Hurricane Sandy is a kind of storm scientists don’t understand well.

121029_SCI_HurricaneSandeySpace
The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 13 captured this image of Hurricane Sandy on Sunday afternoon

NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon with data courtesy the NASA/NOAA GOES Project Science team.

Climate scientist Kerry Emanuel of MIT calls Hurricane Sandy a hybrid storm, a rare type that scientists don’t know much about. He says its damaging rainfall is the sort of thing we’ll see more of in the future due to climate change.

Lisa Palmer: Some scientists say Sandy’s enormous size is not related to climate change. Others say that all storms now have a global warming component because climate change has altered the background state. What does the science say?

Kerry Emanuel: It is correct to say that in no individual [weather] event can you really make an attribution to anything, whether it is climate change or El Nino or your grandmother had her tooth pulled this morning. You just can’t do it for a single event. It is just the nature of the game. Now, Sandy is an example of what we call a hybrid storm. It works on some of the same principles as the way hurricanes work but it also works on the same principles as winter storms work. Hurricanes and winter storms are powered by completely different energy sources. The hurricane is powered by the evaporation of sea water. Winter storms are powered by horizontal temperature contrasts in the atmosphere. So hybrid storms are able to tap into both energy sources. That’s why they can be so powerful.

LP: What do we know about climate change and hybrid events?

KE: My profession has not compiled a good climatology of hybrid events. We have fantastic climatology of hurricanes, but we don’t have a good climatology of hybrid events. It is really because we haven’t done our homework. We don’t have very good theoretical or modeling guidance on how hybrid storms might be expected to change with climate. So this is a fancy way of saying my profession doesn’t know how hybrid storms will respond to climate. I feel strongly about that. I think that anyone who says we do know that is not giving you a straight answer. We don’t know. Which is not to say that they are not going to be influenced by climate, it’s really to say honestly we don’t know. We haven’t studied them enough. It’s not because we can’t know, it is just that we don’t know.

LP: Is hurricane season going to last longer with climate change?

KE: No, I don’t think so. I mean there are indications in both directions, but nothing I’ve looked at shows major shifts in the season of hurricanes. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to change, but the best estimates we are making are only slight changes in the seasonality of storms.

LP: What is the biggest climate change-related factor with storms like Sandy?

KE: With Sandy, a big factor is the coastal waters. For whatever reason, coastal waters are warmer than normal this year. That means that there is more water vapor in the atmosphere. Sandy will certainly produce more rain than if we didn’t have these warm waters near the shore. So you can say that. One of the very definite predictions of climate research is that all storms, regardless of exactly what kind of storm, should rain more going forward because there is just more water vapor in the atmosphere when it gets warmer. And that’s a big deal because of freshwater floods. The second greatest hurricane disaster in the whole Western Hemisphere was the hurricane of 1998 [Hurricane Mitch], and that was all freshwater flooding. It wasn’t wind or even storm surge that caused damage. It was 11,000 people taken out by flash floods in Central America. Don’t underestimate the rain part of it. We think of hurricanes as wind storms and maybe surges, but the rain is a big deal.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 22 2014 1:29 PM “That’s Called Jim Crow” Philip Gourevitch on America’s hypocritical interventions in Africa.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 22 2014 3:33 PM Killing With Kindness My in-laws want to throw me a get-well-from-cancer bash. There’s no way I can go.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 22 2014 12:15 PM The Changing Face of Climate Change Will the leaders of the People’s Climate March now lead the movement?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.