Bad news for the 2022 hurricane season: The Loop Current, a fueler of monster storms, is looking a lot like it did in 2005, the year of Katrina

(The Conversation) – The Atlantic hurricane season began on June 1, and the Gulf of Mexico has been warmer than average. Even more worrying is the outflow of warm tropical water that is flowing unusually far into the Gulf at this time of year, with the power to turn tropical storms into monster storms.

It’s called Loop Current, and it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the Gulf storm risk.

As the Cyclone approaches this northernmost region at the start of the hurricane season – especially during what is forecast to be a busy season – it could spell disaster for those along the North Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida.

If you look at the temperature map of the Gulf of Mexico, you can easily spot the Loop Current. It winds through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, into the Gulf of Mexico, and then back through the Florida Strait south of Florida as the Florida Stream, where it becomes the primary contributor to the Gulf Stream.

This image of the Gulf of Mexico shows how deep the temperatures are.
The Loop is as far north as Tampa, Florida, in mid-May 2022. The scale, in meters, indicates the maximum depth at which temperatures are 78 F (26 C) or greater. Nick Shay / University of Miami, CC BY-ND

When a tropical storm passes through the Current Loop or one of its giant eddies – large spinning puddles of warm water spinning away from the current – the storm can explode as it sucks energy from the stream. warm.

This year, Loop Current looks a lot like how it did in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina crossed the Loop Current before ravaging New Orleans. Of the 27 named storms that year, 7 became major hurricanes. Wilma and Rita also crossed the Loop Current that year, becoming two of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record.

The image of the Gulf of Mexico shows how deep temperatures were in 2005, with a clear detour from the west of Cuba up to Louisiana.
The repeat current in May 2005 looks a lot like May 2022. Nick Shay / University of Miami, CC BY-ND

I have been monitoring ocean temperatures for over 30 years as a marine scientist. The conditions I am seeing in the Bay Area in May 2022 are cause for concern. One prominent forecast predicts 19 tropical cyclones – 32% more than average – and 9 hurricanes. Loop currents have the potential to supercharge some of those storms.

Why forecasters worry about the Current Loop

Warm ocean water doesn’t necessarily mean more tropical storms. But once tropical storms reach waters that are about 78 F (26 C) or warmer, they can strengthen into hurricanes.

Hurricanes draw most of their power from 100 feet (30 meters) of ocean. Normally, the waters above this ocean mix, allowing warm spots to cool rapidly. But Loop Current’s subtropical water is deeper and warmer, and also saltier, than regular water in the Gulf. These effects inhibit ocean mixing and cool the sea surface, allowing the warm current and its eddy currents to trap heat at great depths.

In mid-May 2022, satellite data showed Ring Currents with water temperatures of 78 F or warmer down to about 330 feet (100 meters). In the summer, that temperature can stretch down to about 500 feet (about 150 meters).

The eddy that causes Hurricane Ida in 2021 has temperatures above 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 C) at the surface and has temperatures down to about 180 meters. With favorable atmospheric conditions, this deep heat helped the storm explode almost overnight into a very powerful and dangerous Category 4 storm.

Hurricane Ida's path map shows the central pressure and hurricane strength at each point and the depth of ocean heat capable of powering a hurricane.
Hurricane Ida’s pressure dropped rapidly as it crossed the warm and deep vortex boundary on August 29, 2021. Nick Shay / University of Miami, CC BY-ND

During a storm, warm ocean water can create incredibly high plumes of warm and humid air, providing high-octane fuel for storms. Think about what happens when you heat a large pot of spaghetti on the stove and how steam rises as the water gets hotter. As there is more moisture and heat in a storm, the pressure drops. The horizontal pressure difference from the center of the storm to its periphery then causes the winds to accelerate and the storm to become increasingly dangerous.

Since Loop Current and its eddy currents have a lot of heat, they don’t cool down appreciably, and the pressure will continue to drop. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma had the lowest central pressure on record in the Atlantic, and Rita and Katrina weren’t far behind.

La Niña, wind shear and other dynamics of a busy season

Forecasters have other clues to how hurricane seasons might form. One is La Niña, the opposite climate of El Niño.

During La Niña, stronger trade winds in the Pacific bring cooler water to the surface, creating conditions that help push the jet stream further north. That tends to exacerbate drought conditions in the southern US and also weaken wind shear there. Wind shear refers to the change in wind speed and direction with altitude. Too much wind shear can tear up tropical storms. However, less wind shear, thanks to the arrival of La Niña, and more moisture in the atmosphere could mean more storms.

La Niña was unusually strong in spring 2022, though there is a chance it could weaken later in the year, allowing more wind shear later in the season. Currently, the upper atmosphere is doing little to prevent a storm from strengthening.

It is too early to say what will happen to the driving winds that guide tropical storms and affect where they pass. Even before that, conditions in West Africa were important for tropical cyclones to form in the Atlantic. Dust from the Sahara and low humidity can both reduce the likelihood of hurricanes forming.

Does climate change play a role?

As the global temperature increases, the temperature of the ocean is increasing. Much of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases emitted by human activities is stored in the oceans, where it can provide additional fuel for hurricanes.


Studies suggest that the Atlantic is likely to see more hurricanes strengthen into hurricanes as those temperatures rise, although generally there won’t necessarily be more hurricanes. One study examined the 2020 hurricane season – which has a record 30 named storms, 12 of which made landfall in the US – and found that the storms produce more rain than they would otherwise. in a world free from the effects of human-caused climate change.

Another trend we’ve noticed is that the warm eddies of the Loop Current have more heat than we saw 10 to 15 years ago. Whether that is related to global warming remains unclear, but the effects of warming trends can be devastating. Bad news for the 2022 hurricane season: The Loop Current, a fueler of monster storms, is looking a lot like it did in 2005, the year of Katrina

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