Hurricane Ophelia Is The Strongest East Atlantic Storm On Record

Hurricane Ophelia, captured here on October 11 by the Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite. ESA

Hurricane Ophelia – or the remnants of it at least – is going to make landfall in a rather unusual place: Ireland. It’s had a rather bizarre evolution over the past week, and some meteorologists are suggesting that it’s the strongest east Atlantic hurricane on record.

As you may have realized, particularly if you’re based in Ireland or the UK, hurricanes don’t hit this part of the world. As evidenced quite recently by Harvey, Irma, Maria et al, those that form in the Atlantic Ocean spin off westwards, mostly crashing into the Americas.

In this case, Ophelia is bucking the trend.

When it was initially a tropical depression, it didn’t garner too much attention from scientists; its position, though, was much further northeast than expected. Then, rather rapidly last Saturday, it transformed into a Category 3 storm, the sixth Atlantic storm of that strength this year – and the first of this category to form so far east.

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Higher than expected Atlantic Ocean sea surface temperatures in the northeast, along with favorable winds, appear to have permitted Ophelia to form in such a unique position.

It’s currently drifting over colder waters, which means that when it hits Ireland, it’ll be a storm, not a hurricane – but it’ll have expanded greatly in size, meaning a greater area will experience powerful winds and storm swells. While it isn’t that uncommon for weakening tropical weather systems to impact Ireland and the UK, it is unusual for such a storm to be born of a hurricane that formed this far eastward.

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Eric Holthaus, an American meteorologist, considered Ophelia to be a potential example of a worrying future trend. “Ophelia is hitting Ireland tomorrow, so I’ll say this now: climate change is expected to bring more hurricanes to Europe,” he tweeted.

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Indeed, a 2013 study he links to suggests that warming Atlantic waters will indeed turn this prophecy into a reality. Using a cutting-edge climate model, the team concluded that “the rise in Atlantic tropical sea surface temperatures extends eastward the breeding ground of tropical cyclones, yielding more frequent and intense hurricanes following pathways directed toward Europe.”

Far less research has been done on hurricane formation in this part of the world than on the regions that are more traditionally “prone” to tropical cyclone formation. This means that it’s difficult to say with any certainty whether Ophelia is a harbinger of the trend for Western Europe – but the basic physics suggests that it is.

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