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Study: Cleaner air spurs more Atlantic hurricanes

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Cleaner air in the United States and Europe is brewing more Atlantic hurricanes, a new U.S. government study found.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study links changes in regionalized air pollution across the globe to storm activity going both up and down. A 50% decrease in pollution particles and droplets in Europe and the U.S. is linked to a 33% increase in Atlantic storm formation in the past couple of decades, while the opposite is happening in the Pacific with more pollution and fewer typhoons, according to the report published in Wednesday’s Science Advances.

NOAA hurricane scientist Hiroyuki Murakami ran numerous climate computer simulations to explain changes in storm activity in different parts of the globe that can’t be explained by natural climate cycles and found a link to aerosol pollution from industry and cars — sulfur particles and droplets in the air that make it hard to breathe and see.

Scientists had long known that aerosol pollution cools the air, at times reducing the larger effects of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuel, and earlier studies mentioned it as a possibility in an increase in Atlantic storms, but Murakami found it a factor around the world and a more direct link.

Hurricanes need warm water — which is warmed by the air — for fuel and are harmed by wind shear, which changes in upper level winds that can decapitate storm tops. Cleaner air in the Atlantic and dirtier air in the Pacific, from pollution in China and India, mess with both of those, Murakami said.

In the Atlantic, aerosol pollution peaked around 1980 and has been dropping steadily since. That means the cooling that masked some of the greenhouse gas warming is going away, so sea surface temperatures are increasing even more, Murakami said. On top of that the lack of cooling aerosols has helped push the jet stream — the river of air that moves weather from west to east on a roller-coaster like path — further north, reducing the shear that had been dampening hurricane formation.

“That’s why the Atlantic has gone pretty much crazy since the mid-’90s and why it was so quiet in the ’70s and ’80s,” said climate and hurricane scientist Jim Kossin of the risk firm The Climate Service. He wasn’t part of the study but said it makes sense. The aerosol pollution “gave a lot of people in the ’70s and ’80s a break, but we’re all paying for it now.”

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