Arctic Cyclones to Intensify as Climate Warms

Hurricanes threaten North American coastlines every year, and they appear to be intensifying as climate changes. Similar storms can also hit colder regions to the far north, and new research suggests they will intensify, too.

In findings published in November 2022, NASA scientists project spring Arctic cyclones will intensify by the end of this century because of sea ice loss and rapidly warming temperatures. Those conditions will lead to stronger storms that carry warmer air and more moisture into the Arctic.

“The cyclones will be much stronger in terms of pressure, wind speeds, and precipitation,” said Chelsea Parker, who led the study. “Initially storms will drop more snowfall, but as air temperatures continue to rise and we cross above freezing temperatures, storms will be dropping rainfall, which is a really big change for the sea ice pack.” Parker is a research scientist at the University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“More intense storms will be a hazard to shipping activities, oil and gas drilling and extraction, fishing, and Arctic ecosystems and biodiversity—that’s where maritime weather forecasting is important but still challenging and difficult,” Parker added. “It’s an interesting push and pull because as the sea ice retreats, that opens up more area for these activities to take place, but it also might come with more dangerous weather.”

This natural-color image was made from imagery acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, shows a cyclone spinning over the Arctic Ocean on July 28, 2020. Arctic cyclones can cause sea ice to melt more rapidly. Their strong winds can break and churn the ice and pull warmer waters upwards that would otherwise be ice-capped. And depending on their location, temperature, and whether these storms drop snow or rain, they can also cause the ice to freeze or melt more rapidly.

Parker and colleagues analyzed computer simulations of nine cyclones that have hit the Arctic in the past decade. The warming and sea ice loss of recent decades did not appear to have a noticeable effect on the behavior of those spring storms, Parker noted.

To better understand future conditions, the scientists then simulated an Arctic with even warmer temperatures and less sea ice cover using results from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Projects. “When we add future projected climate change to the computer simulation,” Parker said, “we see a really big response from the cyclones.”

The maps at the top of this page show the simulated storm tracks and wind speeds of the nine cyclones. The left map represents the cyclones on the date of their occurrence within the past decade; the right map shows how the cyclones are projected to respond to climate change by the end of the century.

The team found that by the end of the century, cyclone wind speeds could increase up to 38 miles (61 kilometers) per hour, depending on storm characteristics and the environmental conditions of the region. Parker noted that the peak intensity of such storms could be up to 30 percent longer, and precipitation will likely increase. If cyclones start to bring rainfall in the spring, sea ice may begin melting sooner and less of it will survive the summer melt season.

Such changes will enable the ocean to provide more energy to the atmosphere for deep convection, which increases the potential of storms to intensify and persist. Much like hurricanes in low and mid latitudes, Arctic cyclones use this energy like fuel in an engine. Storms in coming decades could travel farther north and reach areas of the Arctic typically left untouched. The changing weather could increase risks for Arctic ecosystems, communities, and commercial and industrial activities.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data courtesy of Parker, C. L., et al. (2022). Story by Roberto Molar Candanosa/GSFC/NASA’s Earth Science News Team.

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