Are hurricanes ‘learning’ the way to Spain?

For the first time, three tropical storms approached the Iberian peninsula in the same year – a situation that could become more frequent in the future, according to experts

Victoria Torres Benayas
Images of the three tropical storms off the coast of the Spanish peninsula.
Images of the three tropical storms off the coast of the Spanish peninsula.NHC

The year is 2055. The weatherman predicts the impact on Spain of a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale (SSHWS) that has turned into a post-tropical storm with winds of 175 kilometers per hour, torrential rains and a two-and-a-half meter rise in sea level.

This might sound like science fiction, but it is not. This phenomena common to the American coastline – which up until now has been an anomaly – is encroaching with increasing frequency on Europe. Is this a consequence of climate change? That’s the thinking, but it is has not yet to be proven.

“Since the 1970s when the satellites started to rigorously document storms, it was normal for one [hurricane] to appear from the North Atlantic every three or four years,” says Juan Jesús González Alemán, a doctor of physics, researcher of atmospheric dynamics, and one of the leading experts in tropical systems in Spain. “In the last 15 years, the frequency has increased considerably and in the last four years has even become an annual event.”

The hurricanes have “learned” the way to Europe and are passing increasingly close to the Spanish peninsula. It is a “clear trend that is increasing exponentially,” says González Alemán.

Just this Atlantic hurricane season – which runs from June 1 to November 30 – three tropical storms have crossed the Atlantic, turning into very intense depressions 300 to 400 kilometers north east of Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia. This was “totally abnormal and unprecedented,” according to Rubén del Campo, spokesman for Spain’s meteorological agency AEMET. The storms were Hurricane Lorenzo, Hurricane Pablo and Storm Sebastien, which affected the Atlantic side of the Spanish peninsula.

The first storm to make its way towards Europe was the powerful Hurricane Lorenzo, which ended up becoming a Category 5 hurricane – the strongest ever recorded in the central North Atlantic.

The former Hurricane Sebastien hits the British Isles as a strong depression. The associated fronts are affecting the north of the peninsula.

According to Del Campo, “It hit the Azores islands [in Portugal] as almost Category 2 and left a lot of rain, wind and sea storms in the British Isles. In Spain, it mostly caused bad sea conditions with waves of six to seven meters in height in Galicia and Cantabria.”

What’s more, the hurricane reached a latitude of 45º, making it the storm that has traveled furthest north after Hurricane Ophelia – a Category 3 hurricane whose winds aggravated the fires in Galicia and Asturias in 2017, and reached a latitude of 48º.

On October 26, the tropical storm known as Pablo became a Category 1 hurricane, thanks to upper layers of cold air around the Azores islands, despite the fact the temperature of the water was very cold – around 18ºC to 20ºC – far lower than the 26º needed for a hurricane. Pablo is the hurricane which has traveled furthest east, according to Del Campo, breaking the record held by Hurricane Vince in 2005.

One of the most striking images of 2017 seen from space: The fires in Portugal and north of Spain. Hurricane Ophelia worsened the situation with strong wind and dust from the Sahara.

The last of this eastward bound spate of extreme weather is Sebastien, a tropical storm that was about to turn into a hurricane despite less than conducive conditions. It started on November 19 on the Sotavento Islands in the Cape Verde archipelago and made its way diagonally across the Atlantic. While en route to the United Kingdom which it hit last Tuesday night as a post-tropical storm, its associated fronts affected the west of Spain with winds of 135 kilometers an hour in A Coruña in Galicia, 130 kilometers an hour in Palencia in Castile and León region, and 121 kilometers an hour in Biscay in Basque Country. The fallout also included 42 millimeters of rain in Pontevedra and Cáceres and waves six meters high off the Atlantic coast.

The atypical Hurricane Pablo – formed must further east in the Atlantic than normal – is already turning into a tropical storm and quickly weakening, it will only barely be felt on the coast of Galicia with a weak front.

Sebastien is fascinating not just on account of its “unusual route” says Del Campo, but because it grew in strength on the fringes of the Atlantic hurricane season which despite ending on November 30, has seen only seven formed after November 20. Although Sebastien failed to gather sufficient strength to be classed as a hurricane, it did not lose the characteristics of a tropical storm despite unfavorable conditions with water under 20ºC and other conditions that would usually cause it to dissipate, according to Del Campo.

In total, four records have been broken in two years. But while Del Campo and González Alemán both flag up the trend of cyclones coming further east, they admit there is no proven explanation as yet. “The analysts from the Intergovernmental Group on Climate Change are not clear on what is going to happen with [hurricane] trajectories,” says del Campo. “Hypothetically, it could be argued that with warmer waters, the conditions regarding sea temperatures are going to be more favorable.” He adds, however, that there is no reliable scientific data indicating such storms will be coming closer to Europe in the future.

The National Hurricane Center has just released its report on Hurrican Leslie, which affected the Iberian peninsula, as a low-pressure area last October. It stopped being a hurricane 100 km off the coast. It is the first hurricane to have been recorded so close since 1851.

González Alemán, who is pursuing this line of research, indicates a couple of studies on the link between climate change and an increase in the number of hurricanes hitting Europe. “What is happening now is consistent with what these studies say is going to happen, so a connection can be deduced, but it is not rigorously proven,” he says. “There are signs that this is going to keep happening in the future,” he continues, pointing out that it is not only the temperature of the water, but the change in the patterns of atmospheric dynamics caused by global warming that will make it easier for storms to reach Europe. “We have to keep investigating to be sure, and to determine whether it will be double or triple the frequency. Last year’s Hurricane Leslie is the hurricane that has come closest, as it kept within its category 100 kilometers from the peninsula. But it would be very difficult in the future for Category 5 hurricane like Katrina to do this.”

According to the studies, the hurricanes that could reach Europe would be either Category 1 or 2 with winds of 120 and 150 kilometers an hour respectively.

Europe’s emergency systems and infrastructure are equipped to deal with storms with winds of 100 kilometers an hour, but not with Category 1 or 2 hurricanes, whose impact would be devastating in countries that are unprepared. As González Alemán points out, Spain is on Europe’s front line when it comes to this new and alarming scenario.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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