Hurricanes Transport Pollutants: New Study Reveals Storm-Generated Currents

First Posted: Aug 03, 2015 11:42 AM EDT

Scientists are learning a bit more about how hurricanes transport pollution. Researchers have taken a closer look at how the downwelling of warm waters in the ocean actually deepens a storm's fuel tank for rapid intensification toward hurricane statues and how that influences currents.

Tropical storms obtain their energy from ocean waters. As a storm moves across the Gulf of Mexico, it may interact with an upwelling of cooler waters from the deeper ocean or a downwelling inside rings of warm water that separated from a warm-water current, called the Loop Current, that moves through the Gulf of Mexico to join with the Gulf Stream along the U.S. East Coast. As the storm moves forward, ocean temperatures fuel the storm's intensity.

In order to learn a bit more about how tropical storms influence currents, the researchers deployed a total of 376 airborne sensors during six NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft flights. The researchers, in this case, examined the passage of Isaac over the Gulf of Mexico.

The scientists spotted a predominant downwelling of water inside warm-water rings, or eddies from the Loop Current. This caused Isaac to intensify from a tropical storm to a category 1 hurricane just before it made landfall.

"Isaac moved over the region of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill where we observed both upwelling and downwelling processes that can re-suspend hydrocarbons lying on the seafloor," said Nick Shay, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This may have resulted in tar balls being deposited on beaches by hurricane-generated currents."

The findings highlight the need for forecast models to include upwelling and downwelling responses. This may help improve future intensity forecast models and may also show where these storms may transport pollution.

The findings are published in the Journal of Physical Oceanography.

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