European hurricanes are exceptionally rare - but they could become more common
Hurricane Ophelia, which on Friday was a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 100 mph, is headed towards Europe.
If that news made you stop in surprise, you're not alone.It might sound absurd - you don't often hear about named Atlantic storms hitting anywhere in Europe. But what's happening with Ophelia is not that uncommon. It is also possible that more named storms will start curving towards Europe in the coming years in a way that is exceptional compared to what storms usually do.
The National Hurricane Center predicts Ophelia will hit Ireland and the UK as a powerful post-tropical cyclone on Monday.
By the time Ophelia is over the cool water that far north, it'll lose the cyclonic structure that characterizes tropical storms and hurricanes. Instead, Ophelia will be a big weather system, leftover from a cyclone.
It will still be a strong storm. Already, Ophelia set a record for being the strongest an Atlantic hurricane has ever been this far east so late in the year. By the time it reaches Ireland it could still have hurricane-force winds, which would make it an exceptional weather event.
But post-tropical cyclones and the remnants of hurricanes curve up and hit Ireland and the UK fairly regularly - they just tend to arrive as stormy weather carried in that direction by the jet stream. The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang recently conducted an analysis of historical records and found that conservatively, this tends to happen about every 3.5 years or so.
This could start to happen more frequently, however. A study published in 2013 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters concluded that climate models of a warmer world predicted by ongoing global warming showed more storms could survive to hit Europe. Higher sea surface temperatures (which, along with weak wind shear, have helped Ophelia maintain its status so far) could help storms maintain that cyclonic structure as they travel towards Europe, causing the same sorts of storms that hit the US East Coast to hit western Europe."We anticipate an increase in severe storms of predominantly tropical origin reaching western Europe as part of 21st century global warming," the authors wrote.
Up until this point, the Atlantic hurricanes that tend to slam the Caribbean, Gulf Coast, and East Coast have mostly avoided Europe. Even Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula, at the southwestern corner of Europe, have largely been untouched (a tropical depression left by Hurricane Vince hit there in 2005 and another storm hit in 1842).
The overall effect of climate change on hurricanes isn't entirely clear. Many researchers think the number of Atlantic hurricanes may go down but the intensity of these storms could go up.
But if present models are correct, Europe may need to prepare for more of these storms in the future.