Climate change could bring more storms like Hurricane Lee to New England

By | September 15, 2023

BOSTON (AP) — When it comes to hurricanes, New England can’t compete with Florida or the Caribbean.

But scientists said Friday that the arrival of storms like Hurricane Lee this weekend could become more common in the region as the planet warms, including in places like the Gulf of Maine.

A recent study found that climate change could cause hurricanes to expand their reach more often in mid-latitude regions, including New York, Boston and even Beijing. Contributing factors to this, according to the study, are warmer sea surface temperatures in these regions and the shifting and weakening of jet streams – strong bands of air currents that circle the planet in both hemispheres .

“These changes in jet streams combined with warmer ocean temperatures are making the mid-latitude more favorable for hurricanes,” Joshua Studholme, a physicist at Yale University and lead author of the study. “Ultimately, this means that these regions are likely to see increased storm formation, intensification and persistence.”

Another study simulated tropical cyclone tracks from pre-industrial times, modern times and a future with higher emissions. It turned out that hurricanes will move north and east in the Atlantic. It also found that hurricanes would approach coasts including Boston, New York and Norfolk, Virginia, and be more likely to form along the Southeast coast, giving New Englanders less time to prepare.

“We also found that hurricanes are more likely to move more slowly as they travel along the U.S. East Coast, which causes their impacts to last longer and increase the duration of wind and storm management, things such. And this was, again, for cities that included New York and Boston,” said Andra Garner, lead author of the study and assistant professor of environmental sciences at Rowan University.

Kerry Emanuel, a professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has long studied the physics of hurricanes, said parts of Maine will see more frequent hurricanes and heavier rain with each storm.

“We expect to see more hurricanes than we have seen in decades. They should produce more rain and more wind,” said Emanuel, who now lives in Maine. “We’ve certainly seen up here an increase in the destructiveness of winter storms which is a very different beast. I would say that the bulk of the evidence, the weight of the evidence is that we will see more rain and more wind from these storms.”

One reason for this trend is the warming of the region’s waters. The Gulf of Maine, for example, is warming faster than the vast majority of the world’s oceans. In 2022, the Gulf recorded its second warmest year on record, beating the old record by less than half a degree Fahrenheit. The average sea surface temperature was 53.66 degrees (12 degrees Celsius), more than 3.7 degrees above the 40-year average, scientists said.

“Certainly, when we think about storms that form and travel at more northern latitudes, sea surface temperature comes into play a lot because hurricanes need very warm ocean water to feed,” Garner said. “And if those warm ocean waters exist at higher latitudes than in the past, that makes it more possible for storms to move into those areas.”

Lee remained a hurricane with winds of 80 mph (128 kmh) as of 2 pm EDT Friday as it headed toward New England and eastern Canada with 20-foot (6-meter) ocean waves, strong winds and rain. Forecasters said there would be winds exceeding 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) over an area extending more than 400 miles (643 kilometers) before landfall Saturday afternoon.

While hurricanes and tropical storms are rare in New England, the region has seen its share of severe weather events. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 brought gusts of up to 186 mph (300 km/h) and sustained winds of 121 mph (195 km/h) to Massachusetts’ Blue Hill Observatory. Hurricanes Carol and Edna hit the region within 11 days of each other in 1954, and Hurricane Bob decimated Block Island in 1991.

Superstorm Sandy in 2012 caused damage in more than a dozen states and devastated the Northeast when it made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey. Tropical Storm Irene killed six people in Vermont in August 2011, washing away the foundations of homes and damaging or destroying more than 200 bridges and 500 miles (805 kilometers) of highway.

Experts warn that policymakers need to take projections of increased hurricane activity seriously and start improving their seawalls, roads and neighborhoods for these future storms.

“We in our coastal communities definitely need to think about how we can make our coasts more resilient,” Garner said.

“We need to change… where are the flood zones, think about how do we protect the coasts and think about solutions for that and types of adaptation?” she said, adding that politicians can also implement measures to curb emissions so that the worst effects of climate change do not materialize.


Follow Michael Casey on X, formerly Twitter: mcasey1

___ Associated Press climate and environment coverage receives support from several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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