(Corrects that IPCC assesses but does not run computer
simulations, and expands range of warming, paragraph 5)
* Extreme storms most sensitive to rising temperatures
* Number of strong hurricanes could increase seven-fold
By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON, March 18 The number of Atlantic
storms with magnitude similar to killer Hurricane Katrina, which
devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, could rise sharply this
century, environmental researchers reported on Monday.
Scientists have long studied the relationship between warmer
sea surface temperatures and cyclonic, slowly spinning storms in
the Atlantic Ocean, but the new study attempts to project how
many of the most damaging hurricanes could result from warming
air temperatures as well.
The extreme storms are highly sensitive to temperature
changes, and the number of Katrina-magnitude events could double
due to the increase in global temperatures that occurred in the
20th century, the researchers reported in the journal
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
If temperatures continue to warm in the 21st century, as
many climate scientists project, the number of Katrina-strength
hurricanes could at least double, and possibly rise much more,
with every 1.8 degree F (1 degree C) rise in global
temperatures, the researchers said.
Computer projections assessed by the U.N. Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change suggest that global temperatures could
rise by between 1.8 degrees and 10.8 degrees F (1 degree and 6
degrees C) by century's end.
To figure out how many of the most extreme hurricanes these
higher temperatures might spawn, Aslak Grinsted of the Centre
for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen and his
co-authors looked at storm surges, which are often the most
damaging aspect of these monster storms.
A storm surge is the abnormal rise in water, over and above
normal high tide, pushed toward shore by the winds whipping
around a big cyclonic storm. Much of the damage from Hurricane
Katrina, an estimated $108 billion, was caused by high storm
surges across a wide area of the Gulf of Mexico coast, according
to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Superstorm Sandy, which plowed into the northeastern U.S.
coast with hurricane-strength winds last year, cost an estimated
$75 billion, NOAA said.
The researchers looked at storm surges going back to 1923,
and related those to how warm air temperatures were when the
surges occurred. Then, using computer models, they projected how
storm surges might be influenced by future warming.
Storm surges can be a more accurate gauge of a hurricane's
severity than wind speed, like those on the Saffir-Simpson
hurricane wind scale, Grinsted said by phone from Denmark.
"When people talk about (hurricane) intensity normally, then
they mean wind speed," he said. "But that is not what is causing
the most damage only. Sometimes it's about how fast it is
He said that was the case with Sandy, which traveled so
slowly and stretched over such a wide area that its impact was
intense, even though wind speeds abated somewhat by landfall.
Previous research on the link between climate change and
hurricanes has suggested that there may be fewer hurricanes
overall but more stronger ones as global temperatures rise.
This study indicates there will be an increase of hurricanes
of all magnitudes, but the increase will be greatest for the
most extreme events.
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Ros Krasny, Jackie
Frank and Eric Beech)