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Scientists Say Record Heat In The Gulf Of Mexico Supercharged Hurricane Harvey In 2017

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It was previously documented that Hurricane Harvey was the wettest tropical cyclone in U.S. history, but a new study might shed some light about the reason for this.

What Did Researchers Discover About Hurricane Harvey?

When Hurricane Harvey struck the United States in 2017, the waters in the Gulf of Mexico were warmer than any other time recorded. Researchers believe that this warm water supercharged Harvey and strengthened it.

With warmer water, Harvey was able to harness a lot of moisture. This explains the rains from Harvey that caused devastating flooding throughout the Houston area.

The findings were published in the journal Earth's Future.

"We show, for the first time, that the volume of rain over land corresponds to the amount of water evaporated from the unusually warm ocean," said lead author Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "As climate change continues to heat the oceans, we can expect more supercharged storms like Harvey."

Typically, a storm evaporates water and leaves a cold wake in the ocean. However, the waters were so warm that Harvey did not leave a cold wake. The vast amount of heat in the water continued to fuel the storm as it approached the shore. Although more surface temperatures need to be 79 degrees Fahrenheit for a storm to progress, the Gulf of Mexico's surface temperature was 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

While there are changes in weather, such as El Niño, that can alter ocean temperatures, it is clear that climate change had an impact with Harvey.

How Did The Researchers Track The Storm?

Since Harvey was traveling alone in the Gulf of Mexico, the researchers were able to study the specific impact of the heat in the waters. They relied on a group of autonomous floats, called Argo, that measured the water before and after Harvey.

The researchers worked with NASA's Global Precipitation Measurement satellite mission to determine how much rain came from the storm. They also tracked the underlying heat that Harvey released in Texas.

After reviewing the data from all of these sources, they were able to compare the heat and the rain measurements. They determined that the unusually warm waters made the storm worse.

Preparing For The Next Big Storm

As climate change worsens and the waters get warmer, it is important that governments plan for these big storms.

"I believe there is a need to increase resilience with better building codes, flood protection, and water management, and we need to prepare for contingencies, including planning evacuation routes and how to deal with power cuts," Trenberth said. 

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