On Wednesday, the tiny tropical island of Barbuda bore the first wave of fury unleashed by Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever recorded. As vulnerable nearby islands scrambled to defend themselves against Irma, barreling toward Puerto Rico with sustained wind speeds of 185 mph, attention was briefly drawn away from the ocean from which it came, where even greater meteorological devastation is rapidly brewing.
There, in the central Atlantic, a tropical storm named Jose was quickly forming, and in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico, tropical storm Katia started gaining strength.
By Wednesday afternoon, the United States National Hurricane Center (NHC) had confirmed that Jose’s “quickly strengthening” winds had gathered enough speed for it to qualify as a hurricane.
The sixth Public Advisory issued by the NHC didn’t list any coastal watches or warnings, but it warned that “[Interests] in the Leeward Islands should monitor the progress of Jose.” The hurricane’s winds have increased to near 75 mph — not quite enough for a category 5 rating on the Saffir–Simpson scale, like Irma — but the advisory noted that additional strengthening is in the forecast for Jose and that he could be “near major hurricane strength on Friday.”
Some of the Leeward Islands, like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Barbuda, have already been pummeled by Irma.
Tropical Storm Katia also reached hurricane status on Wednesday, leading the Mexican government to put a hurricane watch into effect for the coast of the state of Veracruz. The NHC’s Forecast Discussion released on Wednesday afternoon reported that Katia is forecast to “meander in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico for the next day or two.” After that, models predict that it will move southwest, toward Veracruz. Even before it makes landfall there, Katia is predicted to bring “torrential” rains to the state.
While it isn’t unprecedented for such high-level hurricanes to form one after another, some scientists are speculating, in Harvey’s wake, that climate change is to blame. In an interview with the Atlantic, Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, pointed out that the sea surface water in the Gulf of Mexico was between 2.7 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average as Harvey rapidly evolved from a tropical depression to a Category 4 hurricane.
“This is the main fuel for the storm,” said Trenberth. “Although these storms occur naturally, the storm is apt to be more intense, maybe a bit bigger, longer-lasting, and with much heavier rainfalls [because of that ocean heat].”
It seems likely that, as climate change causes the oceans to continue warming, these alphabetical strings of sibling storms — like Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Katia — won’t be so much the exception as the norm.