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Category 6 hurricanes? Future storms will be increasingly violent

A new computer model suggests that the 21st century will have more frequent hurricanes of staggering force.

Doppler image of a hurricane
A new computer model predicts that storms in the 21st century will become increasingly violent (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
  • A new computer model provides unprecedentedly detailed forecasts of tropical storms.
  • Projections show a major increase in hurricanes of Category 3 and above by the end of the 21st century.
  • One primary driver of the planet's increasingly extreme hurricanes is warming oceans.

The 21st century is not only projected to see more hurricanes, but also ones so extreme that scientists might need to create a new category to classify them.

A new computer model, created at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, can provide unprecedentedly detailed forecasts of tropical storms in both past and future environments by simulating interactions between meteorological forces, like the atmosphere and oceans.

Recently, a team led by NOAA researcher Kieran Bhatia used the technology to glimpse the future and see how a warming climate might affect tropical storms across the globe. The sight was unsettling.

For 2016 to 2035, the projections showed an 11% increase in hurricanes of categories 3, 4, and 5, compared to the late 20th century. That increase jumped to 20% by the end of the 21st century.

Alarmingly, the intensity of some storms is projected to be off the charts.


The Saffir-Simpson scale (pictured above) is used to categorize the intensity of storms and currently tops out at 5 (NOAA).

Scientists currently use the Saffir-Simpson scale to measure the intensity of tropical storms and tropical depressions (essentially, a mini-storm). A storm registers on the lowest end of the scale when its winds reach 74 miles per hour. The most severe category, 5, begins at 157 mph and is left open-ended.

The new projections forecast some storms with maximum sustained winds of more than 190 mph. Only 9 such storms were observed in the 20th century. But for 2016 to 2035, the projections produced 32 of these extreme storms and 72 for 2081 to 2100.

Some scientists argue that adding a new category to the Saffir-Simpson scale will help the public grasp the changes climate change is bringing to the planet.

“Scientifically, [six] would be a better description of the strength of 200-mph storms, and it would also better communicate the well-established finding now that climate change is making the strongest storms even stronger," said climatologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, at a conference earlier this year.

“Since the scale is now used as much in a scientific context as it is a damage assessment context, it makes sense to introduce a category six to describe the unprecedented strength 200-mph storms we've seen over the past few years both globally and here in the southern hemisphere."

One primary driver of the planet's increasingly extreme hurricanes is warming oceans.

Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye. Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you. #Horizons pic.twitter.com/ovZozsncfh
— Alexander Gerst (@Astro_Alex) September 12, 2018

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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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