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Climate change is impacting so much around us: heat, flooding, health, wildlife, housing, and more. WUSF, in collaboration with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, is bringing you stories on how climate change is affecting you.

Warming climate is heating up waters and creating more intense hurricanes

Satellite view of Hurricane Idalia
A satellite view of Hurricane Idalia as it approaches Florida on Aug. 29, 2023.

After a record hot summer, warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico fueled the intensity of Hurricane Idalia.

When Idalia tracked across the Gulf of Mexico, ocean waters measured a balmy 88 degrees.

"The warmer the waters, the more fuel you have. So the more fuel you have, you know, you're just cranking up the engine, essentially," said Thomas Frazer, dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.

In less than 24 hours, the tropical storm escalated into a Category 4 hurricane before downgrading to a Category 3 when it made landfall on Florida's Big Bend Region near Keaton Beach Wednesday morning.

By definition, rapid intensification is when a hurricane increases speed by 35 mph in a 24-hour period. In Idalia's case, the tropical storm saw an increase of more than 55 mph in that time span.

Frazer says warmer waters caused by climate change is leading to stronger storms such as Idalia.

"It's indicative of how fast these systems can intensify and how the extremely warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico contribute to that intensification," he said.

Other atmospheric causes made Idalia a fast-moving storm as well, Frazer added. The hurricane tracked at a pace of 18 mph.

On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Region experienced a storm surge of between 4 to 7 feet. Even after Idalia's center made landfall and tracked northward toward Georgia, a king tide — high tide caused by a super moon — had kept coastal- and low-lying areas inundated with water.

Before and during the storm, government and emergency management officials urged residents to evacuate or stay inside to avoid flooding. Bridge and road access to barrier islands were restricted for part of the day.

And while Idalia's path tracked more than 100 miles west of Tampa Bay, but the hurricane's larger wind span pushed ocean tides into the bay late into the afternoon.

"Even though the eye of the hurricane passed West Tampa Bay and moved quickly, northward in the Gulf of Mexico, that wind field continued to affect Tampa Bay for an extended period of time," said Frazer. "And that's what really led to the piling up of water in the Bay and, in large part, the flooding issues that we observed here, particularly in Pinellas County."

Although winds have subsided and tidal cycles are returning to normal, officials continue to warn residents not to drive in deep waters as it could be contaminated or hide dangers such as downed power lines.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.
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