• As the climate crisis continues, hurricanes could become more common.
  • According to Yale physicist Joshua Studholme, the 21st Century's tropical cyclones are expected to appear in a wider range of latitudes; this has not occurred for 3 million years.
  • However, it is still possible to avoid worst case scenarios by keeping temperature increases to a minimum.

In September of last year, heavy rainfall from Hurricane Ida reached the Northeastern U.S., killing at least eight people and flooding enough New York City subway stations that the whole system had to shut down.

Now, a new study warns that scenes like this could become more common as the climate crisis continues. The research, published in Nature Geoscience, found that hurricanes and cyclones could form and intensify in mid-latitudes this century, putting major population centers like New York, Boston and Beijing at risk.

“This research predicts that the 21st century’s tropical cyclones will likely occur over a wider range of latitudes than has been the case on Earth for the last 3 million years,” study author and Yale University physicist Joshua Studholme said, as the Hartford Courant reported.

a map showing the double exposure of Hurricane Ida approaching New Orleans on August 29, 2021.
Double exposure of Hurricane Ida approaching New Orleans on August 29, 2021.
Image: UNSPLASH/Brian McGowan

Tropical cyclones, as their name suggests, typically form over the warm waters of tropical oceans. Storms like Ida that form in the Caribbean and then move north can still do massive damage to mid-latitude population centers. But the new study suggests that these destructive storms could actually begin over mid-latitude waters. One example was 2020’s subtropical storm Alpha, which was the first ever tropical cyclone to make landfall in Portugal.

These dangerous storms could shift because the difference in temperature between the tropics and the poles will decrease as the climate warms, weakening the jet stream that typically keeps hurricanes and cyclones near the equator.

“As the climate warms, that sort of jet stream activity that happens in the middle latitude will weaken and in extreme cases split, allowing this sort of cyclone formation to occur,” Studholme told BBC News.

The researchers based their predictions on satellite data, future weather and climate projects and the physics behind atmospheric convection and planetary winds, the Hartford Courant explained. They also looked at models of the distant past, when Earth was warmer, such as the Eocene (56 million to 34 million years ago) and the Pliocene (5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago). Those models showed tropical cyclones forming and intensifying at mid-latitudes.

There is debate as to whether or not the climate crisis will increase the total number of hurricanes, but there is a growing consensus that it is making the ones that do form more intense. The new research adds to the understanding of what tropical storms could look like through the end of the current century.

“There are large uncertainties in how tropical cyclones will change in the future,” study co-author and Yale professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences Alexey Fedorov said, as the Hartford Courant reported. “However, multiple lines of evidence indicate that we could see more tropical cyclones in mid-latitudes, even if the total frequency of tropical cyclones does not increase, which is still actively debated. Compounded by the expected increase in average tropical cyclone intensity, this finding implies higher risks due to tropical cyclones in Earth’s warming climate.”

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

However, the study authors said it was still possible to avoid the worst of this future.

“The control over this is the temperature gradient between the tropics and the poles, and that’s very tightly linked to overall climate change,” Studholme told BBC News. “By end of this century, the difference in that gradient between a high emission scenario and a low emission scenario is dramatic. That can be very significant in terms of how these hurricanes play out.”