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Some Of The Warmest Water On Earth Is In The Path Of Laura And Marco

Several weeks ago I wrote an article in Forbes warning that hurricane fuel (warm ocean waters) were going to be high octane this season. As we watch Hurricane Marco and soon-to-be Hurricane Laura approach the Gulf of Mexico, that cautionary writing takes on new meaning. Hurricanes derive their energy from ocean heat content, and some of the warmest sea surface temperatures on Earth right now are in the path of both storms.

As of the 5 pm National Hurricane Center advisory, Hurricane Marco is a category 1 storm headed to Louisiana. It is expected to make landfall Monday and drift westward along the Louisiana coastline. Hurricane and tropical storm warnings have been issued for relevant regions of the Gulf Coast. A few days later, Tropical Storm Laura, which is expected to become a hurricane at some point early in the week, will move into the Gulf of Mexico. I am concerned about the potential strengthening of Laura, and I will explain why later. The National Hurricane Center’s Sunday afternoon discussion said, “Although not explicitly shown, Laura could threaten the northwestern Gulf coast near major hurricane strength.” Major hurricanes are designated as category 3 or greater. If you live along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Mississippi, please be vigilant. Recovery from one storm is tough enough, but we are dealing with two (and a pandemic).

On social media, tropical meteorology experts whom I respect are tweeting things like this:

  • “This is really a remarkable situation… two strengthening tropical cyclones: Hurricane #Marco and Tropical Storm #Laura. Both are expected to make landfall on the northern Gulf coast as hurricanes: Marco on Monday and Laura on Wednesday.” – Brian Mcnoldy, University of Miami”
  • “#Laura now forecast to have winds of 105mph as it approaches the northern Gulf Coast. The most recent 105mph+ #hurricane to make landfall in Texas is Harvey (2017, 130 mph) and in Louisiana is Gustav (2008, 105 mph).” – Dr. Phil Klotzbach, Colorado State University
  • “The latest HWRF IR simulation for #Laura is bone chilling prior to US landfall. The models are converging onto a very dangerous scenario for the Texas-Louisiana area.” – Dr. Michael Ventrice, IBM/The Weather Company

None of these colleagues is in the hype business and are extremely credible scientists. I too am concerned though my meteorological training reminds me that there is still significant uncertainty with Laura until it clears the terrain of Cuba. However, these ominous words from the National Hurricane Center inspired this article, “After the center clears western Cuba, the upper-level wind pattern is predicted to quite favorable while the storm traverses the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Hurricanes can form when ocean waters are at least 26 degrees C (or 79 degrees F) but that is on the low “octane” end of the scale. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Gulf of Mexico right now are in excess of 30 degrees C (86 degrees F). When you compare the Gulf of Mexico SSTs to other parts of the world (see below), it is clearly one of the warmest pools on Earth right now.

Tomer Burg, an atmospheric sciences doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma, also points out another reason to be concerned. Burg tweeted, “Between low shear, high ocean heat content (OHC) and very warm SSTs in a loop current in the Gulf of Mexico, Laura is likely to significantly intensify in the Gulf. NHC is forecasting RI, which also ties the largest 24-hour intensity change forecast by NHC valid at hour 72.” Let me decode his Tweet for the non-meteorologist. Ocean Heat Content (OHC) is metric of the amount of warm water available to be converted into hurricane energy. Studies suggest that it is a better indicator than SST though both are useful. Burg also mentioned RI (rapid intensification), which the National Hurricane Center defines as an “increase in the maximum sustained winds of a tropical cyclone of at least 30 kt in a 24-h period.” Finally, Burg referenced the loop current. NOAA’s Ocean Services defines the loop current as “an area of warm water that travels up from the Caribbean, past the Yucatan Peninsula, and into the Gulf of Mexico.” Hurricane Katrina intensified over the loop current in 2005.

The uniqueness of this current situation is not lost on meteorologists nor is the potential danger of it. Be safe.

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