Last month, Hurricane Patricia shattered records as the strongest storm ever recorded in the Western hemisphere.
Before that, in August, three category 4 hurricanes developed over the Pacific in rapid succession for a display unlike anything we’ve ever seen, shown in the image to the right.
And if climate scientists are correct, these monster storms are just a small taste of what is to come.
While predicting Earth’s overall climate is a complex and tricky business, the notion that storms are growing ever-stronger is more of a guarantee than a possibility.
And the reason comes down to a simple, fundamental equation that’s aided engineers for nearly 200 years.
In 1824, mathematician Nicolas Sadi Carnot developed an equation that has since been called Carnot’s rule.
The equation calculates what is now called Carnot efficiency, which helps engineers evaluate how much power they can get out of an engine versus how much they lose to heat, sound, and other external forces. Here it is:
Efficiency of a heat engine = 1 – (Tempcold/Temphot)
In his latest book “Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World,” engineer and popular science communicator Bill Nye, explains that hurricanes are like a giant heat engine where Tempcold and Temphot signal the temperature of the ocean and the air.
“As the sea surface warms with climate change, the temperature difference between the sea and the sky increases a little,” Nye writes. “The Carnot efficiency of this enormous atmospheric spinning system gets just a little bit higher, and cyclonic storms can become more powerful.”
Here, Nye is suggesting that the ocean is warming slightly faster than the air, which agrees with scientific analysis.
In a 2013 paper in Science, researchers discovered that although Earth’s surface temperature has remained the same for the last 15 years, the overall global temperature continues to increase, and most of that heat is going into our oceans.
The researchers measured that, for the last 60 years, the middle depths of the Pacific have been warming 15 times faster than any other point in time in the last 10,000 years.
What’s more, hurricanes get their energy from warm water, and the warmer the water, the faster the storm can develop. One recent study found that, compared with 25 years ago, hurricanes today tend to intensify significantly faster. That same study found that category 3 windspeeds are achieved nearly nine hours faster, on average, now than in the 80s, according to NASA.
For these reasons, experts anticipate that more violent storms are on their way.
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