(NewsNation) — Warm ocean waters helped fuel Ian into a Category 4 hurricane before it struck the western Florida coast Wednesday. Climate experts believe those warmer waters are here to stay, and will continue rapidly charging tropical storms in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricane Ian ravaged parts of Florida as it tore through the coast with 150 mph winds. Data shows that four out of the five costliest hurricanes in the U.S. have taken place in the past 10 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Hurricane Center.
Several variables contribute to how quickly a hurricane strengthens and how severe it becomes. Florida State University Meteorology Professor Vasu Misra says one factor is undeniable: tropical oceans are warming.
Although that doesn’t necessarily create more storms, it means the ones that do form are more likely to grow stronger.
“A warm tropical ocean is like gasoline for the engines of tropical cyclones,” Misra said. “Warm tropical oceans should alarm us, especially people in the coastlines who are vulnerable to tropical cyclones.”
Key ingredients for a hurricane include warm water, damp air and colliding winds. Since at least 1968, the ocean’s heat has steadily increased. Warmer ocean waters account for 90% of the Earth’s warming, according to NASA, and the water’s internal temperature increases the likeliness of storms becoming more intense, Misra said.
“Ian went through a rapid intensification as well,” he said. “Going from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4 … within a matter of 24 or 48 hours is quite significant.”
As the world becomes warmer, there’s more moisture in the air and in a hurricane, spiraling wind pulls moist air toward the center and feeds the surrounding thunderstorms, according to NASA.
“Think of a figure skater, when she spreads her arms, she’s spinning (more) slowly,” Misra said. “As she brings her arms closer, then she begins to spin very fast.”
Predicting the severity of future storms is more complicated than just taking the ocean’s temperature.
Other factors such as the vertical wind shear, jet stream strength and coastal population all play a role in the formation of a hurricane.
Most of the models used for climate projections, however, look at the entire Atlantic-Gulf of Mexico basin, Misra said, missing critical regional data that would better help researchers find the scope of the issue and better predict tropical storm and hurricane behavior.
“They’re not talking about regional characteristics within those basins within the Atlantic,” he said. “Where is it? Near the African coast? Or is it near the U.S. coast?…We have not been able to come to that stage yet…and the regional specificity of these projections have become more important.”