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World to see fewer, stronger hurricanes

WASHINGTON — Top researchers now agree that the world is likely to experience stronger but fewer hurricanes in the future because of climate change, seeming to settle a scientific debate on the subject.

But they say there's not enough evidence yet to tell whether that effect has already begun.

Since just before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, dueling scientific papers have clashed about whether climate change is worsening hurricanes and will do so in the future. The new study seems to split the difference. A special World Meteorological Organization panel of 10 experts in both hurricanes and climate change — including leading scientists from both sides — came up with a consensus, which was published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The study projects that overall strength of storms as measured in wind speed would rise by 2 to 11 percent, but there would be between 6 and 34 percent fewer storms in number. Essentially, there would be fewer weak and moderate storms and more of the big damaging ones.

An 11 percent increase in wind speed translates to roughly a 60 percent increase in damage, said study co-author Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at MIT.

The storms also would carry more rain, another indicator of damage, said lead author Tom Knutson, a research meteorologist at NOAA.

Knutson said the new study, which looks at worldwide projections, doesn't make clear whether global warming will lead to more or less hurricane damage on balance. But he pointed to a study he co-authored last month that looked at just the Atlantic hurricane basin and predicted that global warming would trigger a 28 percent increase in damage near the U.S. despite fewer storms.

The study does a good job of summarizing the current understanding of storms and warming, said Chunzai Wang, a researcher with NOAA who had no role in the study.

James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the study "should be a stern and stark warning that America needs to be better prepared and protected from the devastation that these kinds of hurricanes produce."

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