Record-breaking Ocean Heat Fueled Hurricane Harvey

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WASHINGTON ‘ In the weeks before Hurricane Harvey tore across the Gulf of Mexico and plowed into the Texas coast in August 2017, the Gulf’s waters were warmer than any time on record, according to a new analysis.

These hotter-than-normal conditions supercharged the storm, fueling it with vast stores of moisture, the authors found. When it stalled near the Houston area, the resulting rains broke precipitation records and caused devastating flooding.

“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 (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. “As climate change continues to heat the oceans, we can expect more supercharged storms like Harvey.”

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Study: Record-Breaking Ocean Heat Fueled Hurricane Harvey

Despite a busy 2017 hurricane season, Hurricane Harvey was more or less isolated in location and time, traveling solo over relatively undisturbed waters in the Gulf of Mexico. This gave Trenberth and his colleagues an opportunity to study in detail how the storm fed off the heat stored in that 930-mile wide ocean basin.

The team compared temperatures in the upper 160 meters (525 feet) of the Gulf before and after the storm using data collected by Argo, a network of autonomous floats that measure temperature as they move up and down in the water. To measure rainfall over land, the scientists took advantage of a new NASA-based international satellite mission, dubbed Global Precipitation Measurement.

Hurricane Harvey was intensified by record-breaking ocean heat

Data collected by Argo, a network of floats that measure temperature as they move up and down in the water, enabled the team to compare temperatures in the upper 160 meters of the Gulf waters before and after the storm. The experts used measurements of rainfall on land made available by NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement.

As a storm moves over the ocean, it usually leaves behind cold water after evaporating warm surface waters. However, the scientists found that there was so much heat in the upper layer of the Gulf during Hurricane Harvey that surface waters were continuing to warm up, generating more energy to fuel the storm system.

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Record-breaking ocean heat fueled Hurricane Harvey

The study appears in the journal Earth’s Future, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. It was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and by the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR’s sponsor. Other co-authors of the paper are Yongxin Zhang and John Fasullo, also of NCAR; Lijing Cheng, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; and Peter Jacobs, of George Mason University.


As hurricanes move over the ocean, their strong winds strafe the sea surface, making it easier for water to evaporate. The process of evaporation also requires energy from heat, and the warmer the temperatures are in the upper ocean and at the ocean surface, the more energy is available.

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