September 21st, 2011 • 2:50 PM
Update: Hurricanes and the Sun

by Peter Martinson

Now that hurricane season has passed its peak, NOAA's National Hurricane Service reports that it was indeed a strange one. Usually, about half the tropical storms become hurricanes. This year, there was a very-above-average number of named tropical storms (14 so far, and another one's forming, named Ophelia), but very below average in number of hurricanes. Only three of these storms attained hurricane-force winds. This is the lowest ratio of hurricanes to tropical storms since around 1850! Without denigrating the damage done by several of these storms, why was this season both very active, and also very weak?

Maybe the answer can be found in the cosmos. As I reported on the last feature Weather Report, there is overwhelming evidence that the Sun's going into some sort of lull period, possibly another Maunder Minimum. This means that the coming maximum of Cycle-24 at the end of next year will be the weakest maximum in the recent decades, a "Minimum Maximum." After that, the Sun may not have enough oomph to generate another full sunspot cycle for the foreseeable future, possibly decades or centuries into the future.

A separate report was made two years ago, based on data gathered by NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite. The ACE has recorded the highest cosmic ray flux since we began sending satellites into space. The flux took a nosedive starting around the time of Apollo, and only fully recovered during the last solar minimum. But, it has recovered with a vengeance.

Bondur, Pulinets, and Kim demonstrated back in 2008 that short-term changes in cosmic ray flux into the high atmosphere can affect changes in tropical cyclones. They showed that, when Tropical Storm Katrina was headed north along the Atlantic coast, the Earth got struck with a geomagnetic storm that produced a Forbush decrease in cosmic ray flux. This decreased flux resulted in decreased cloud-droplet nucleation in the upper atmosphere, and thus a decrease in latent heat release. The resultant effective cooling of the upper atmosphere above Katrina increased the temperature gradient, forcing a more vigorous updraft and consequent intensification of the winds, driving Katrina into becoming a hurricane.

Perhaps the paradox of this year's Atlantic hurricane season has a resolution in this direction? The cosmic ray flux is the highest measured since the 1950s, and the Sun, though headed to the cycle's maximum, is unusually quiet. Solar activity actually collapsed over July and August, and is only now picking up in mid-September. Perhaps, though the terrestrial conditions were ripe for an intense series of tropical cyclones, the cosmic ray flux remained too high for the proper steep temperature gradient to be established, and thus very few of the cyclones could get the updrafts necessary to intensify.

The other implication of the Sun's coming hibernation, is that our planet and biosphere will become more and more subject to the whims of the galaxy, without the mediating strength of an active Sun. We'd better take note, and ramp up our manned space programs!

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