Tropical cyclones have long been the symbol of climate change due to their immediately recognizable ferocity. Fueled by warm water, researchers have long expected them to become more intense as the oceans heat up.
A new Nature Geoscience study reveals that this has in fact been happening for the last four decades – at least in the Western Pacific. This means that typhoons, as they are referred to in China, Taiwan, Japan, and the Koreas, will become more violent as the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean warm.
Using a plethora of tracking data from records including the widely-utilized Joint Typhoon Warming Center (JTWC) and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), the team noted in their study that “over the past 37 years, typhoons that strike east and southeast Asia have intensified by 12-15 percent, with the proportion of storms of categories 4 and 5 having doubled or even tripled.”
This 15 percent rise in intensity equates to a 50 percent jump in destructive power.
Contradictory trends have previously emerged from these two agencies, but this was mainly due to how their data was recorded and interpreted. After correcting these mistakes, the two researchers from the University of California, San Diego, have identified a clear past trend, which hints that the near-future will feature even more destructive typhoons.
The pair also point out that the human populations along coastal areas are continually rising, which increases the inherent hazardousness of typhoons year on year. Sea level rise, a phenomenon directly attributable to man-made climate change, will also make these typhoon storm surges even worse when they hit these coastal areas.
Apart from enacting the Paris agreement, and strengthening it over time, there’s nothing else that can be done to stop their inexorable march towards these shores. Hurricanes, their western hemispheric equivalents, were expected to follow a similar trend, but rather mysteriously they haven’t – at least not yet.
A recent study revealed that the amount of sunlight-reflecting air pollution in the region is masking some of the warming effect of greenhouse gases for the time being, and that in the immediate future, there will be fewer but far more intense hurricanes striking the Americas than ever before.
Cyclones have been damaging in the past, but they have become far worse in the last few decades. Everett Historical/Shutterstock
The study also notes that, with around 90 cyclones per year, they are a relatively rare occurrence compared to volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, so trends are harder to spot. Nonetheless, the team working on typhoons are confident they have found the clear sign of warmer surface waters powering far stronger storm cycles, although they are oddly reluctant to point the finger at man-made climate change just yet.
However, the links between warming surface waters and greenhouse gases are very clear, and the oceans are capable of locking up a lot of heat. In fact, 90 percent of the extra heat produced by human activity in the last 100 years has gone into the oceans, not the atmosphere, and the shallow caches of that heat will be powering some pretty terrifying cyclones both now and in the future.
The damage that Typhoons Lionrock and Namtheun have caused are already clear to see, and now we know part of that is down to warming ocean waters most certainly linked to man-made climate change. As many are beginning to spot, hurricanes are also becoming not just stronger, but stranger, with two back-to-back cyclones streaking into Hawaii recently for the first time in recorded history – something that was blamed partly on unusually warm surface waters linked to climate change.
This study is another example of how climate change nightmares are not only awaiting the next generation or two, they’re happening right here, right now.
Some of the damage caused by Typhoon Lionrock. Kyodo News/Getty Images