Alex, which became the first Atlantic hurricane to form in January since 1938 on Thursday, was downgraded to a tropical storm just 24 hours later. But over the past day, this rare storm has gone where few preceding storms have gone and climate change may have something to do with that.
Alex swept through the Azores this morning with a confirmed wind gust to 57 mph. Officially, its maximum sustained winds were estimated to be 70 mph, just 4 mph shy of hurricane strength, when it made landfall on Terceira Island at 8:15 a.m. ET in the Azores. For perspective Terceira Island is at approximately the same latitude as Washington, D.C.
Before Alex was downgraded to a tropical storm, CWG contributor Phil Klotzbach noted that only one hurricane had existed north and east of Alex’s position in records back to 1980. This is remarkable considering this storm is charging through the Atlantic in January rather than the height of hurricane season in August or September, when water temperatures are much warmer.
In 2014, tropical cyclone researcher Jim Kossin of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information along with colleagues published work documenting a northward shift in where storms reach maximum intensity, in part due to warming ocean temperatures. In other words, they found the tropics were expanding.
In an interview with CWG, Kossin said Alex is consistent with the types of storms expected in a world in which the tropical breeding grounds have expanded.
“It certainly would fit in,” Kossin said. “But I would hesitate to say there’s a direct connection. Any singular event is difficult to attribute to some mean behavior.”
Kossin added the northward shift in the peak strength of tropical cyclones observed in other ocean basins hasn’t yet been detected in the Atlantic. “The Atlantic is generally an outlier among all ocean basins. It undergoes a type of variability that is different,” he said.
Kossin agreed with the statement made by Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters Wednesday that warmer than normal ocean waters in the Atlantic helped Alex attain tropical characteristics at an usual time of year.
“I think the anomalously warm temperatures in that region contributed,” Kossin said, explaining conditions were only marginal for storm development. “The [warm] anomaly was what allowed it to become marginal.”