A NOAA satellite handout image shows Hurricane Florence as it made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, on 14 September 2018. Photo: NOAA / Getty Images

By Jeff Nesbit
15 September 2018

(The Guardian) – There is no such thing as a category 6 hurricane or tropical storm – yet. The highest level – the top of the scale for the most powerful, most devastating hurricane or tropical storm capable of destroying entire cities like New Orleans or New York – is a category 5 storm.

Meteorologists and scientists never imagined that there would be a need for a category 6 storm, with winds that exceed 200 miles per hour on a sustained basis, sweeping away everything in its path. Until now, such a storm wasn’t possible, so there was no need for a new category above category 5.

Right now, however, there is anywhere from 5 to 8% more water vapor circulating throughout the atmosphere than there was a generation ago. This, combined with warmer temperatures that are driving water up from the deep ocean in places where hurricanes typically form, has created the potential for superstorms that we haven’t seen before – and aren’t really prepared for.

This combination of warmer oceans and more water in the earth’s atmosphere – whipsawed by sustained periods of drier and wetter conditions in regions of the world that create superstorms – is now starting to create storms with conditions that look precisely what a category 6 hurricane would look like.

No one in America has ever experienced the wrath and fury of a category 6 hurricane, which now genuinely seems possible and realistic. We’ve been lucky. Unofficial category 6 hurricanes have appeared in other parts of the world, and we’re seeing much stronger storms on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time before one hits the US.

When it does, it will come as quite a shock. The devastation we saw in 2017 in Houston, several Caribbean islands, and Puerto Rico may actually pale in comparison.

Jeff Masters, one of the most respected meteorologists in America, has begun to wonder publicly about the potential for a category 6 hurricane. He launched a lively debate among his colleagues with a provocative post in July of 2016 on the Weather Underground – a thought-provoking piece that prompted the Weather Channel and others to weigh in with their thoughts and theories as well.

“A ‘black swan’ hurricane – a storm so extreme and wholly unprecedented that no one could have expected it – hit the Lesser Antilles Islands in October 1780,” Masters wrote to open the post. “Deservedly called The Great Hurricane of 1780, no Atlantic hurricane in history has matched its death toll of 22,000. So intense were the winds of the Great Hurricane that it peeled the bark off of trees – something only EF5 tornadoes with winds in excess of 200mph have been known to do.”

A dog and a duck sit amongst the ruins of a house after Super Typhoon Mangkhut hit the town of Alcala, Cagayan province on 15 September 2018. Photo: Ted Aljibe / AFP / Getty Images

Masters then made the startling claim that such a “black swan” hurricane was not only possible now but almost certain to occur more than once. He said that such storms should more properly be called “grey swan” hurricanes because the emerging science clearly showed that such “bark-stripping” mega-storms are nearly certain to start appearing.

“Hurricanes even more extreme than the Great Hurricane of 1780 can occur in a warming climate, and can be anticipated by combining physical knowledge with historical data,” wrote Masters, who once flew into the strongest hurricane at the time as one of NOAA’s “Hurricane Hunters” in the 1980s. “Such storms, which have never occurred in the historical record, can be referred to as ‘grey swan’ hurricanes.”

Masters based his bold prediction on research by two of the best hurricane scientists in the world – Kerry Emanuel of MIT and Ning Lin of Princeton – who published the most detailed hurricane model in history in August 2015. Emanuel and Lin’s hurricane model was embedded within six different worldwide climate models routinely run by supercomputers.

“The term ‘black swan’ is a metaphor for a high-consequence event that comes as a surprise. Some high-consequence events that are unobserved and unanticipated may nevertheless be predictable,” they wrote in Nature Climate Change. “Such events may be referred to as ‘grey swans’ (or, sometimes, ‘perfect storms’). Unlike truly unpredicted and unavoidable black swans, which can be dealt with only by fast reaction and recovery, grey swans – although also novel and outside experience – can be better foreseen and systematically prepared for.” [more]

This is how the world ends: will we soon see category 6 hurricanes?

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