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.

  • 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.

“When the water in the oceans gets hotter, which is happening because of global warming, it's like fuel for a hurricane's engine that's spinning up, gaining strength," science reporter Rebecca Hersher told NPR's Up First podcast. “So you can think of it as a hot bath. The evaporating moisture feeds the storm. So here's the really bad news when it comes to that: The oceans are warmer now than they've ever been."

Hersher said the water feeding Hurricane Florence, which is a category 4 storm currently surging off the east coast of the U.S., is slightly warmer than normal.

Related Articles

How swimming in cold water could treat depression

The surprisingly simple treatment could prove promising for doctors and patients seeking to treat depression without medication.

Photo by Luis Marina/Flickr
Mind & Brain
  • A new report shows how cold-water swimming was an effective treatment for a 24-year-old mother.
  • The treatment is based on cross-adaptation, a phenomenon where individuals become less sensitive to a stimulus after being exposed to another.
  • Getting used to the shock of cold-water swimming could blunt your body's sensitivity to other stressors.
Keep reading Show less

Eating your kids may improve your sex life? Sounds fishy.

Maybe try counseling first before you try this, married folks.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • The study looks at cannibalism in fish.
  • If it doesn't look like the brood is going to be 'productive,' it might get eaten.
  • Don't try this at home. Seriously, don't. Human beings deserve love and respect.
Keep reading Show less

Are people with more self-discipline happier?

Why self-control makes your life better, and how to get more of it.

Buddhist monks of all nations mediate in Thailand. Monks are well known for their self-discipline and restrictive lifestyle. Is it possible that this leads them to happiness?
(Photo by Geem Drake/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Research demonstrates that people with higher levels of self-control are happier over both the short and long run.
  • Higher levels of self-control are correlated with educational, occupational, and social success.
  • It was found that the people with the greatest levels of self-control avoid temptation rather than resist it at every turn.
Keep reading Show less