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Missouri could see more tropical cyclones

Published on September 1, 2020

Tropical Cyclone Laura strengthened into a hurricane before landfall in Louisiana. I weakened to a tropical storm as it headed north and east to Missouri.

Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 26th in Cameron, Louisiana, and brought flooding and storm damage, counted in the billions of dollars to the Southern United States. Right now, one week later, hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses still don't have access to electricity. From Louisiana, Hurricane Laura weakened to a tropical storm as it tracked north and east through Arkansas, then to a tropical depression as it made its way through Southeast Missouri and to the East Coast.

We want to highlight how tropical cyclones are affecting the state of Missouri and the broader Midwest. Climate scientists use the term Tropical Cyclones as a more comprehensive term for hurricanes and tropical storms.  Hurricanes typically lose strength as they make their way inland and weaken to tropical storms.

"From 1938 to 2012, there were 35 (tropical cyclones entering Missouri.) If you include Cindy in 2017, Cristobal in 2020, and Laura in 2020, that is 38," says Anthony Lupo, Ph.D.; "this year being quite active, then we have two already this year.  While 2005 reigns supreme for Missouri with four tropical storms, we still have two months left (in this year's hurricane season.)" Lupo is department chair and professor of atmospheric science at the University of Missouri. Lupo's research into tropical storms in Missouri points to a strong positive correlation between the number of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the number of tropical cyclones that reach Missouri.

Lupo points to his research into the impact of tropical storm systems in Missouri. “A lot depends on how climate change impacts Gulf storms. Hurricanes are notoriously low, or medium, confidence events for future projections in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) volumes. Some say more, some say (fewer) storms. Some say fewer but more intense storms. So, I’ll hang my hat on the General conclusion above, more storms in the Gulf, more chances for us.”

Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central, adds that tropical storms are bringing significantly more rainwater with them when they track to Missouri. "There is also emerging evidence to suggest the forward speed of tropical cyclones is slowing down," Sublette says. "Combined, this means a greater risk for higher amounts of rain with these systems and in turn, flooding."

Sublette shares an analogy created by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. In summary, a baseball player may not increase his chances of hitting a ball if he’s on performance-enhancing drugs. But that same baseball player may increase his chances of hitting a home run when he does hit a ball. The National Center for Atmospheric Research says a warming climate is like steroids to tropical cyclones. Climate change may not affect the frequency of hurricanes but it may affect their intensity.

            Laura didn't bring the kind of destruction seen in Louisiana and Texas to Missouri. However, parts of Southeast Missouri were inundated with heavy rain and 30 miles per hour winds according to Weather Underground. Strong winds and heavy rains can damage crops and property. As the climate gets warmer, we may see more of these events in Missouri and the Midwest.

"In a warmer world, hurricanes are not getting more frequent, but they are getting stronger. They're intensifying faster. They're getting bigger and slower. And they have a lot more rainfall associated with them than they would have 50 or 100 years ago," Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D. told NPR. Hayhoe is a climate researcher at the Texas Tech Climate Center. Hayhoe's comments are used with her permission.

Sean Sublette adds, "a warming world means more evaporation, so there will be more precipitation in the storms that form, whether they be tropical or non-tropical. In short... warmer air holds more water."

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