Aerial view of Port Arthur flooding
Flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas on August 31, 2017. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

One year ago, Hurricane Harvey dumped record rainfall on southeastern Texas. Some areas received more than 40 inches of rain.

According to new research, the heavy rainfall was a direct result of unusually warm temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

Trenberth: “In the case of Harvey, we were able to use new measurements before and after to assess the ocean heat content in much more detail than we’ve ever been able to do before.”

That’s Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He says that during a hurricane, warm ocean water evaporates into the atmosphere, where its energy fuels the storm’s swirling winds. And, the evaporated water creates moisture that then condenses into rain.

Trenberth’s research on Hurricane Harvey found that the amount of heat energy released from the ocean matched the energy released as the hurricane converted that moisture into rainfall.

Trenberth: “The direct implication is that if the oceans hadn’t been that warm there wouldn’t have been so much moisture and it wouldn’t have rained as hard.”

Trenberth says that as oceans continue to warm, they will provide even more fuel for powerful – and devastating – storms.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...