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
A satellite image of sea heat shows the strong loop current and swirling eddies. Christopher Henze, NASA/Ames
The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1 and the Gulf of Mexico is already warmer than average. Even more worrisome is a current of warm tropical water penetrating unusually far into the Gulf for this time of year, which can turn tropical storms into monster hurricanes.
It's called Loop Current, and it's the Gulf Hurricane's 800-pound gorilla risk.
If the Loop Current moves this far north so early in the hurricane season -- especially during the projected busy season -- it can spell disaster for people along the northern Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.
If you look at temperature maps of the Gulf of Mexico, you can easily spot the loop current. It meanders into the Gulf of Mexico through the Yucatan Canal between Mexico and Cuba, and then swings back through the Florida Strait south of Florida as the Florida Current, where it becomes the main contributor to the Gulf Stream.
The loop current was about as far north as Tampa, Florida in mid-May 2022. The scale in meters shows the maximum depth at which temperatures were 78°F (26°C) or greater.
When a tropical storm sweeps across the Loop Current or one of its giant gyres—large rotating pools of warm water that bounce off the current—the storm can explode in strength as it drains energy from the warm water.
This year, the Loop Current looks remarkably similar to 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina crossed the Loop Current before devastating New Orleans. Of the 27 named storms that year, seven became major hurricanes. Wilma and Rita also crossed the Loop Current that year, becoming two of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record.
The May 2005 loop current looked strikingly similar to May 2022. Nick Shay/University of Miami, CC BY-ND
As a marine scientist, I have been monitoring the heat content of the oceans for more than 30 years. The conditions I see in the Gulf in May 2022 are a cause for concern. A prominent forecast calls for 19 tropical storms - 32% more than the average - and nine hurricanes. The loop current has the potential to charge some of these storms.
Why the loop current worries forecasters
Warm seawater doesn't necessarily mean more tropical storms. But once tropical storms reach waters that are about 78°F (26°C) or warmer, they can intensify into hurricanes.
Hurricanes draw most of their strength from the top 100 feet of the ocean. Normally, these upper ocean waters mix, allowing warm spots to cool quickly. But the subtropical waters of the Loop Current are deeper and warmer, and also saltier than the ordinary waters of the Gulf. These effects inhibit ocean mixing and sea surface cooling, allowing warm currents and their eddies to retain heat to great depths.
In mid-May 2022, satellite data showed the Loop Current had water temperatures of 78 F or warmer down to about 100 meters. By summer, that heat could extend to about 500 feet (about 150 meters).
The vortex that fueled Hurricane Ida in 2021 was above 30 °C (86 °F) on the surface and had a heat of about 180 meters (590 ft). With favorable atmospheric conditions, this deep reservoir of heat helped the storm explode into a very powerful and dangerous Category 4 hurricane almost overnight.
Hurricane Ida's pressure dropped rapidly as it crossed a warm, deep eddy boundary on August 29, 2021. Nick Shay/University of Miami, CC BY-ND
In a storm, warm seawater can create powerful plumes of rising warm, humid air that provide high-octane fuel for hurricanes. Think about what happens when you cook a large pot of spaghetti on the stove and how the steam rises as the water gets hotter. As more moisture and heat rise within a hurricane, the pressure decreases. The horizontal pressure difference from the center of the storm to its periphery leads to the wind speeding up and the hurricane becoming more and more dangerous.
Because the loop current and its eddies have so much heat, they don't cool down significantly and the pressure will continue to fall. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma had the lowest central pressure on record in the Atlantic, and Rita and Katrina were not far behind.
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