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Florida and Gulf coasts could see more hurricane strikes as planet warms, new study finds

A NOAA satellite image shows Hurricane Ian as it makes landfall in Florida on Sept. 28, 2022.
NASA Worldview/Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) via AP
A NOAA satellite image shows Hurricane Ian as it makes landfall in Florida on Sept. 28, 2022.

Even before Hurricane Ian plowed across southwest Florida last year, six insurance companies in the state facing rising reinsurance rates and increasing claims had become insolvent. With so much risk, reinsurers — the handful of global companies that insure the insurers — are tightening the reins.

Now a new study has found that Florida and the Gulf Coast are expected to face increasingly dire odds of getting hit by hurricanes as the planet warms and atmospheric winds that steer the powerful storms shift toward the southeast U.S. coast.

Once near land, the wind shear that helps stifle hurricanes is also expected to weaken, meaning those storms could remain more intense.

“What we found is that these wind changes have a double whammy effect,” lead author and climate scientist Karthik Balaguru said in a statement. “When these two factors work together, it exacerbates the whole problem.”

The study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and published last week in the journal Science Advances is among the first to explain the mechanics and role winds play on a warming planet as they make hurricanes more dangerous. It is also among the first to address frequency and landfall. Because local conditions can influence both, it’s difficult to tease out the effects of climate change. Hurricane strike records are also relatively brief, since so few make landfall.

For this study, Balaguru and a team of researchers built a new model capable of simulating large ensembles of made-up storms. With so many to study, they were able to tease out factors influencing the storms and isolate variables.

As they focused on landfalling hurricanes, they discovered that wind was the dominant factor, Balaguru said.

In particular, they found that as ocean temperatures rise in the East Pacific, more water evaporates, releases heat and creates stormy conditions.

Those waves of heat in the atmosphere then spread clockwise around the planet, changing winds in the lowest level of the atmosphere that steer hurricanes. As they spread across the Atlantic, where most hurricanes are seeded off the west coast of Africa, winds are expected to shift toward the Southeast and Gulf coasts.

If current warming trends continue, they warn hurricane landfalls in the region could increase by 30 percent.

For hurricane-battered Florida, increasing odds of strikes could worsen an ongoing insurance crisis. With Hurricane Ian leaving damages across the state totaling nearly $112 billion, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The Insurance Information Institute expects property insurance to rise 40 percent in 2023. In May, Citizens, the statewide windstorm insurance pool, announced it wasincreasing rates on average about 14 percent.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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