Editor's note: This was updated at 3:50 p.m. Monday to correct the television network on which a University at Albany hurricane specialist appeared.
As Hurricane Irma approached the northern shores of Cuba earlier this month, Hurricane Katia swirled its way toward Mexico and Hurricane Jose worked its way across the Atlantic basin.
Three powerful hurricanes threatened landfall in the United States, encapsulating in one satellite image what draws people to fear and marvel over the devastating storms.
"They make for beautiful imagery," said Kristen Corbosiero, a University at Albany professor and hurricane specialist. "It's extremely impressive to see these three storms lined up, but also worrisome."
Corbosiero said many of the hurricane experts who work in UAlbany’s Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Science have family and friends who live along the coasts and southeastern regions most at risk from hurricanes. But it’s also the natural power of the storms that draws them to their work. It’s a “double-edged sword,” she said.
This month Corbosiero and her colleagues have been busy at work tracking a series of massive storms that have moved across the Atlantic Ocean and slammed into Texas and Florida. They’ve appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in The Wall Street Journal. They said there may even be an Irma-Harvey bump in the next couple of years, as student interest in atmospheric science rises following major storms.
While Irma’s forecasts shifted as to exactly where it would make landfall and what side of Florida would see the greatest impact, professor Brian Tang said the models did a good job of predicting how the storm’s trajectory would unfold. He pointed out that the National Hurricane Center’s forecast was almost right on where the storm ultimately slammed into the Keys.
"The main message is that the models have gotten so much better in the last decade or two," said Tang, another UAlbany professor and hurricane specialist. "It's a testament to the science that we're as good as we are now at predicting where these storms are going.”
Two decades ago, Tang surmised, forecasters would have struggled to predict 40 inches of rain over Houston or pinpoint Irma's track as it headed toward Florida nearly a week in advance — though this year the forecasts predicted both.
"With Harvey, the models were saying it's going to rain 40 inches and we were like is that even possible, because it's outside the realm of what we've observed," he said. "Sure enough, that's what happened."
But the models can always be better, and Tang and others will spend the coming months and years learning lessons from storms like Harvey and Irma to help fine-tune future forecasts
"Every model is wrong, it's the essence of chaos," Tang said. "It's really what makes the atmosphere very interesting and exciting to study."
Hurricane Harvey packed unprecedented rainfall but "mild" winds, while Irma's wind wreaked havoc as the storm surge flooded coastal areas. Corbosiero said watching the storms’ impacts raised questions for her about how forecasters can continue to better communicate the risks associated with storms and to help communities understand the importance of building resiliency.
The peak of hurricane season has recently passed, but the threat of more storms typically remains active through October, Tang said.
"Jose is likely not the last hurricane we will have this season, so people will need to be vigilant," referring to the hurricane that was swirling just south of Bermuda last week.
What about climate change?
Corbosiero and Tang said changes in the climate — like sea levels, water and air temperatures and more — are undoubtedly influencing hurricanes and how they behave. But they cautioned that individual storms cannot not be attributed to climate change alone.
"It's not so much the hurricanes themselves that are being affected, it's the environment around the hurricanes that is being affected," Tang said.
As sea levels rise, for example, the storm surges brought in by hurricanes will become more threatening and potentially devastating. And even just small changes can cause enormous damage. It was just an inch or two during Hurricane Sandy that caused massive flooding of the New York subway system, Tang said.
"In terms of the damage, even an inch or two can make a big difference," Tang said.
A warmer atmosphere also increases the amount of water vapor available to be converted into torrential rainfall. Tang said there's also evidence that suggests the maximum potential strength of hurricanes may increase slightly as temperatures warm, but he warned that it would take decades to see this trend show up in the data.
Corbosiero also highlighted how changes in sea level and temperatures — and not climatic changes like how humans have developed coastlines — was sure to influence the kinds of impacts that storms have when they do hit.
"We can't say that any particular storm was caused by global warming, but we can say that some of the impacts of the storm are probably related," she said. "What we do know is that impacts and resiliency are going to be impacted by a warming planet."
And while it might be an interesting academic point to argue over to what extent warming temperatures will force hurricanes further north, storms like Sandy have shown that hurricanes can strike in the Northeast.
"We don't need to wait to see what happens in terms of climate change to be thinking about risks now," she said. "Because they are here now."