Climate

Hurricane Beryl is the terrifying storm that scientists have been expecting

Scientist in front of screen depicting Hurricane Beryl

John Cangialosi, Senior Hurricane Specialist at the National Hurricane Center, inspects a satellite image of Hurricane Beryl.

Hurricane Beryl reached Category 5 strength as it tore into the Caribbean on Monday, with sustained winds reaching 165 miles per hour. This marks the earliest point in the season on record that a tropical storm has reached this intensity. As of Tuesday morning, at least one death has been confirmed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The storm is now heading toward Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, bringing “life-threatening winds and storm surge,” according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm is expected to weaken as it reaches Mexico by the weekend.

As unprecedented as the storm may be, it lines up with what scientists have been predicting.

The Atlantic Ocean has been gathering the raw materials for a raucous hurricane season for months and is now assembling them into major storms. Beryl is the Atlantic’s first big project for 2024.

Ocean surface temperatures are the foundation for hurricanes. The water needs to be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Typically, the amount of hot water needed to power a major hurricane doesn’t accumulate until later in the summer, but the Atlantic Ocean absorbed a tremendous amount of heat in the past year as the planet heated up to the hottest average temperature on record.

The other major component of hurricanes is the air above the water. Hurricanes thrive when there is minimal wind shear, a phenomenon where winds push in different directions as the altitude changes. They also count on less stability in the layers of temperature and moisture in the atmosphere. “Weak stability (not much density change with altitude) allows easier transport of moist air near the surface to rise in the atmosphere where it can form cumulus clouds that produce heavy rain,” said Michael McPhaden, a hurricane researcher at NOAA, in an email.

This year, the shift from El Niño to La Niña in the Pacific Ocean is driving more of these hurricane-favorable atmospheric conditions over the Atlantic. That’s why forecasters have been warning since May that this summer will bring an above-normal hurricane season, with upward of seven major hurricanes at Category 3 or above.

Beryl also stands out because of how quickly it gathered strength. Meteorologists describe this trait as rapid intensification, where a hurricane’s wind speeds rise by at least 35 miles per hour in 24 hours. Beryl picked up 65 mph between Saturday and Sunday, though still nowhere near as quick as Hurricane Otis, which spun up almost 100 mph in 12 hours last year.

All the while, the climate is changing and worsening some of the most destructive elements of hurricanes. Warmer temperatures are lifting sea levels, so when tropical storms make landfall, they push more water inland. Warmer air also holds onto more moisture, so storms dish out more rain. Hotter water also tends to lead to more rapid intensification.

More people are living in areas vulnerable to cyclones, too, so as these storms spool up, more lives and property are at stake.

However, the people living in some of the most vulnerable areas are taking steps to prepare for future hurricanes. In particular, Caribbean countries have been investing in disaster early warning systems that can identify brewing storms and alert residents to evacuate or seek shelter. The Caribbean warning system received $7 million in funding from the United Nations in May to upgrade disaster alerts and responses across countries in the region. It’s part of a broader $3.1 billion UN push to ensure that all people on Earth are protected by a disaster early warning system by the end of 2027.

But warnings are only the first step. The people receiving the warnings need to be able to act on them. On small, resource-poor islands, the routes to safety are few and fragile. And the threat from Beryl may not end when the storm passes.

Getting relief supplies into afflicted countries is likely to remain a challenge, and the damage from Beryl could leave the Caribbean more vulnerable to the next hurricane that erupts.

Update, July 2, 10:05 am ET: This story was originally published on July 1 and has been updated with news that Hurricane Beryl has intensified.

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