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School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University

Hurricane Lee, left, and Hurricane Margot churn over the Atlantic. Satellite photo from NOAA

City planners all along the eastern seaboard, meteorologists and people living in flood plains are all hoping the current projections for Hurricane Lee prove correct.

As of earlier this week, the hurricane, which became the fastest system to transition from a tropical storm into a Category 5 hurricane, was not expected to make direct landfall.

That, however, may only be a temporary reprieve, as the conditions that made such a rapid intensification of this monster storm, which, at one point, had wind speeds of 165 miles per hour, continue to exist during the rest of this hurricane season and will likely continue in future years.

Earlier this summer, a sensor off the coast of Florida recorded an ocean temperature of 101.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest ever recorded. That creates conditions that threaten marine life and provides the energy that fuels the growth and intensity of hurricanes.

“We know that the warmer the sea surface temperatures are that a storm interacts with, the increased likelihood that a storm will undergo rapid intensification,” said Kevin Reed, associate professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. As the Earth continues to warm, Reed added, he expects those conditions to persist.

The exact timing of when a storm will intensify “remains a significant challenge to the weather community,” Reed added. “These types of events continually remind us that we have some way to go in forecasting the intensity of storms, even over a couple of days’ time scale.”

While most of the models predict the storm will head north before tracking toward a potentially dangerous landfall, Reed added that “there remains a possibility that the storm could take a track that interacts with New York or New England” and that the hurricane is still multiple days away from the region.

At this point, Reed believes such a landfall is not impossible but is unlikely.

Even without a landfall nearby, forecasters warn that the storm could produce dangerous rip currents and rough waters around the middle Atlantic states toward the latter part of this week.

NOAA forecast

One of the first things Reed does each morning and the last thing he does in the evening is check the National Hurricane Center site, among others.

A month ago, the hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, was relatively quiet.

At that point, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association updated its seasonal projection to suggest that the hurricane season would be above normal.

“Here we are, in the thick of things,” with multiple storms out there and high activity levels, Reed said. “It’s important to keep an eye on those storms. All it takes is one to make landfall in our region to have a lasting impact.”

Hurricane Lee is the fourth hurricane of the season and the 14th named storm, six ahead as of Sept. 9 of the average over the last 30 years, according to the National Hurricane Center data.

A Category 1 storm, Hurricane Margot, is moving northward in the Atlantic, where it is not expected to make landfall. Another two disturbances may also combine and form a tropical storm. If they do, the disturbance would be named Nigel.

Reed is currently working on a few projects in which he hopes to use climate information to help inform potential impacts of future storms in the local area and coastal regions.

He is looking back retrospectively at various storms to determine how those hurricanes might differ in a warmer world. Those projects, he said, are still in the early stages.

Well aware of the potential for strong storms to hit the area, Reed has looked at a flood map around his house to know where flood waters would go amid different conditions.

He has also talked with his family about what they would do during a storm and where they would get information in the event of an evacuation from New York.

“I try to practice what I preach,” Reed said.

Fish kills in Long Island have increased from about five per year to 50 this summer. Photo by Laurie Vetere

Fish kills in waterways around Long Island climbed to over 50 this summer from about five per year in earlier years, driven by increasing water temperatures, algal blooms and increased nitrogen in local waters.

With temperatures climbing more than 2 degrees Celsius over the last two decades, waters around Long Island don’t have as much oxygen, particularly at night when photosynthetic plants are no longer able to catch sunlight and turn it into oxygen.

The fish kills represent a “pretty big number,” said Christopher Gobler, endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.

Members of Gobler’s lab sample Long Island waters routinely as a part of their research. While his team was out gathering data, Gobler asked them to report any fish kills that included 10 or more fish. The area between Hempstead Harbor and Northport Harbor routinely included observations of fish kills.

Warmer water holds less dissolved oxygen than colder water, because oxygen can escape more easily from water in higher heat.

With temperature as the primary driver, a combination of factors robs the water of oxygen.

“The warmer the water gets, the quicker the bacteria take oxygen out, the faster the fish are respiring” Gobler said. 

He added the fish kills often included menhaden, or bunker, fish. These fish have returned in larger numbers in recent years to the waters around Long Island amid other conservation efforts. More menhaden this summer also brought sharks to the area, as these apex predators hunt bunker fish.

While global warming likely had a significant impact on the number of fish kills, Gobler said, an increase in nitrogen in local waterways also contributed to anoxic conditions and is something residents can control locally.

With more nitrogen, typically from onsite wastewater, algae have more nutrients to grow.

At the same time, when more abundant algae dies, the bacteria that break down the algae consume oxygen.

An additional emerging perspective suggests that the more abundant algae at night are respiring, removing oxygen from the water.

Gobler said people can reduce the release of nitrogen into local waterways, which can also affect groundwater, by upgrading their sewage treatment systems. Suffolk County has created rules, including a Reclaim our Water Septic Improvement Program, which protects the environment by reducing nitrogen emissions.

Gobler remains concerned not only for the fish that wash up in numbers along the shore, but for the marine organisms that aren’t as mobile, such as the invertebrates at the bottom of the waterways.

The fish kills are a flag that “these water bodies are impaired and are not capable of sustaining marine life in a way we’d like them to,” Gobler said.

As for the future, Gobler said it’s difficult to predict how the combination of factors, from global warming to nitrogen runoff, will affect marine life.

“Maybe next year, we go back to five [fish kills] in the summer,” he said. This year was “unlike anything we’ve seen” with a combination of high temperatures and numerous fish kills.