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Research Highlights

January 2017

Less Salty Ocean is Right Up Typhoons' Alley

Researchers found increasing freshwater from rainstorms in the ocean helps intensify already strong typhoons

animation of typhoon Haiyan satellite and destruction 2014
Super typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in 2014, with perhaps the highest wind speed ever recorded for a tropical cyclone at landfall at that time. The storm surge topped 24 feet. Super typhoons like Haiyan can overcome even the best storm shelters leaving millions homeless. It is important for researchers to understand the forces and conditions that boost typhoon intensity. The animation shows the satellite view of Haiyan and the devastation caused on Leyte Island. Photos in animation courtesy of NOAA's site and Wikimedia. zoomEnlarge Image.

Results: Typhoon Alley, an area of the western tropical Pacific, already has destructive storms that rip through the region. That area may see more and more intense storms, according to researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.  Their analysis of the strongest tropical storms over the last half-century—known as super typhoons—reveals that they are intensifying. Rain that falls on the ocean reduces its salinity and allows typhoons to grow stronger.

"This work has identified an extremely important region affected by this, the western tropical Pacific known as Typhoon Alley. These storms are really destructive over that region," said oceanographer Dr. Karthik Balaguru of PNNL, who published the work in Nature Communications.

Why it Matters: Typhoons need heat to grow. Known in the Atlantic as hurricanes, typhoons normally have a natural check on how intense they become. The oceans store a lot of the sun's energy as heat, and storms rely on that heat to build. As their strong winds whip up the ocean's surface, they churn deeper colder water to the surface, which cools off the surface and weakens the typhoon's power.  

Previous studies suggested that as the planet warms, so does the surface of the ocean. As the temperature difference between surface ocean water and deeper water increases, ocean churning by typhoons would cool the surface more strongly. Ultimately, that could decrease the intensity of tropical storms in the future.

But a warmer atmosphere also brings more rainfall to the ocean—and freshwater is less dense than saltwater. As the freshwater collects on the ocean's top, it prevents the normal churning, thereby keeping the surface warmer. Thus, a lack of ocean water mixing might mean more surface warmth and a more intense storm.

Methods: The team focused on the western Pacific Ocean, where almost a third of tropical storms form.  Looking the salinity of the top layer of ocean, they saw that between 1958 and 2013, the ocean there did become less salty during typhoon season, and most of this decrease was in the top 50 meters of ocean. A quick overlay of storm tracks showed that they fell along the areas of lower ocean salinity.

The team then looked at how the surface salinity changes affected the strength of super typhoons, storms that are as strong as category 4 or 5 hurricanes. They analyzed the wakes of cold water the super typhoons left on the ocean as they passed, and which of two competing factors—the typhoon intensity bump from a decrease in salinity or an intensity decrease from a larger gradient in the ocean temperature—played a bigger role in modulating the intensity of the super typhoons. They found that the influence of the salinity change to fuel storms was about 50 percent stronger than the ocean temperature effect that decreases the intensity of super typhoons. The strongest super typhoons are most affected by the changes because they strongly rely on the ocean's heat as their fuel. When they plugged those relationships into climate model projections for the future, they team found that as greenhouse gases and temperatures rise, the increase of rainfall over the oceans will ultimately lead to more intense storms. They verified that effect using almost 20 different climate models.

What's Next? This work identifies a need to study upper ocean salinity in addition to temperature when examining the intensity of typhoons.

For more information, read the PNNL news release, "Increasing rainfall in a warmer world will likely intensify typhoons in the western Pacific"


Sponsor: The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research for the Regional and Global Climate Modeling program; and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory.

Research Team: Karthik Balaguru and L. Ruby Leung, PNNL; Gregory Foltz, NOAA.

Research Area: Climate and Earth Systems Science

Reference: Balaguru K, GR Foltz, LR Leung, and KA Emanuel. 2016.  "Global Warming-Induced Upper-Ocean Freshening and the Intensification of Super Typhoons." Nature Communications 7:13670. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13670

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In short...

In one sentence: The western Pacific area may see more and more intense storms as increased rainfall from a warmer climate reduces ocean salinity in regions where typhoons gain their strength.

In 105 characters: Ocean salinity reduction from more rainfall fuels increased typhoon intensity in western Pacific @PNNLab