Gulf will face 'more tropical cyclones' due to climate change

Khalifa University study finds that cyclones are more likely to hit land as temperatures rise

Images from satellite provider Maxar show the moment Cycline Shaheen hit Oman's coast in October 2021. Such storms are expected to become more frequent. Photo gif: Maxar / The National
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Gulf nations are likely to face more tropical cyclones amid climate change, researchers have warned.

Cyclones are more likely to form in the Arabian Sea as temperatures rise, they are predicted to become stronger, and there is a greater chance that they will make landfall on the Arabian Peninsula because the land is warmer, climate analysis suggests.

Models predict an increase in extreme weather globally as temperatures increase, and scientists have previously said that there is already evidence of this happening.

The latest study, titled “Key factors modulating the threat of the Arabian Sea’s tropical cyclones to the Gulf countries”, looks at the only two tropical cyclones to move into the Sea of Oman and make landfall on the south-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula since 1900. These were Gonu, in 2007, and Shaheen, in 2021.

Temperature and moisture ... are the fuel of tropical cyclones and therefore both the intensity and the frequency of tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea is expected to increase
Dr Diana Francis, Khalifa University

In October, Oman faced the brunt of Shaheen, which left 14 people dead and caused about $500 million worth of damage.

In 2007, Oman experienced its worst natural disaster on record when Gonu led to about 50 deaths and caused more than $4 billion of damage.

With climate change, temperature and moisture “are projected to increase significantly over our region”, according to Dr Diana Francis, the first author of the study and head of the Environmental and Geophysical Sciences (Engeos) lab at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

“These two parameters are the fuel of tropical cyclones and therefore both the intensity and the frequency of tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea is expected to increase,” Dr Francis said.

Co-authored by Dr Ricardo Fonseca and Dr Narendra Nelli, postdoctoral fellows at Khalifa University, the paper was published this month in the journal JGR-Atmospheres.

Gonu and Shaheen formed in part because of conditions created by the Madden-Julian Oscillation, a circulation pattern that causes variability in the tropical atmosphere.

Other factors included higher than average sea-surface temperatures, warmer oceans and a small amount of vertical wind shear, meaning that wind speed and direction changed little with altitude.

The location where the tropical cyclones made landfall was influenced by factors including the Arabian heat low, a low-pressure system associated with the Gulf region’s very high summer temperatures.

Also known as thermal lows, heat lows form because of the strong seasonal heating of land areas in the subtropics.

A previous study by Dr Francis and her co-researchers showed that the Arabian heat low has intensified over the past four decades because of climate change.

Because the temperature over the land affects where the tropical cyclones make landfall, as land temperatures rise, severe weather events become more likely to strike land in the region.

Other research has previously forecast that tropical cyclones could start to move into the Arabian Gulf, something that could have potentially severe effects given that the Gulf has many coastal cities.

Dr Francis said it was not possible for people to change the trajectory of tropical cyclones, but she said it was important for the region to become better prepared, given the damage that can result.

“I think countries on the Arabian Sea and the Arabian Gulf need to account for the threat from tropical cyclones especially [given] the storm surge, the strong winds and heavy rain that come with tropical cyclones, when designing coastal constructions and infrastructure,” Dr Francis said.

Wealthy nations such as the UAE are in a better position to safeguard against some of the effects of extreme weather because they can invest in better sea defences, for example.

Updated: June 14, 2022, 4:30 PM