For years, environmentalists and climate experts have worried about the effects of increased air pollution from large, industrialized cities like Houston. But one new study says all of that pollution might actually be saving us from worse weather. Researchers in the UK Met Office have published findings that suggest increased air pollution has caused a reduction in tropical storms and hurricanes in the North Atlantic over the past century.
The study looked at aerosols--particles suspended in gas--specifically man-made particles from fossil fuels, and found that these particles shield the sun's heat from the sea, preventing high water temperatures that lead to storms. "Think of it as dust in the atmosphere that intercepts the sun and reflects some of it back to space, but the sun never gets all the way to the ground to warm the water," says Steve Lyons, meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Texas. "Therefore, the water is a little cooler and there are fewer hurricanes." While Lyons understands the theory behind the study, he doesn't necessarily agree with the conclusion. His biggest issue with the research is that it relied solely on weather simulations, rather than actual conditions. "Unfortunately you can't actually take man away from it and remove all those aerosols and see what would have happened without them in the real atmosphere," he says.
Lyons explains there are many factors that contribute to changes in hurricane activity, such as long-term cycles in wind and water currents. "It's the ocean that's affecting (the weather) and the atmosphere that's changing as well, and sometimes we don't know why." He also points out that the reduction in hurricanes may not come from the pollution itself, but from the type of air that holds it. "Some people like myself think it may be a little bit caused by the particulates, but also the stable (air) layer that's with it that's really controlling and preventing the thunderstorms from growing and forming into a tropical cyclone." The bottom line: air pollution is just one of many factors in determining hurricane formation. For the 2013 season, NOAA has predicted seven to 11 hurricanes, with three to six major hurricanes.
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