Could a 500 Mph “Hypercane” End Life As We Know It?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hurricanes feel like they’ve been getting stronger recently, with several devastating storms wreaking havoc one after the other. But could natural disasters get much worse?

According to one theory, what we’ve seen this year is nothing compared to “hypercanes” — a doomsday scenario that seems to come straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.

What’s a hypercane? Think of it as a super hurricane, with 500+ mile-per-hour winds that could cover the entire North American continent. In a hypercane, sea spray and debris from the storm could puncture the stratosphere, eventually damaging the ozone layer! A superstorm of such magnitude would require a combination of humid, stormy air and ocean water heated to at least 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

Crazy as it sounds, it may have happened once before.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Many scientists believe that dinosaurs may have died after an asteroid struck the Earth in Mexico 66 million years ago. But they’ve never been able to explain why a single impact would lead to the mass extinction of all dinosaurs globally.

Enter MIT Professor and atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, who developed the hypercane theory in a 1995 paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research. Using computer models, he theorized that an asteroid or underwater volcano could have heated the ocean to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, fueling a series of deadly hypercanes that would have damaged the ozone layer and made the climate inhospitable.

While hypercanes don’t seem to be anywhere in the near future (thankfully!), scientists agree that these storms will continue to intensify thanks, in part, to climate change.

Two factors of global warming — heat trapped in the atmosphere and rising ocean temperatures — provide the perfect fuel for hurricanes. Warmer air above the ocean absorbs more water, providing more energy for a hurricane, and ultimately, more rainfall. Sea surface temperatures have risen 0.17 degrees Fahrenheit each decade since 1905, and if they continue their upward trend, then hurricanes will likely be much stronger in the future.

Add to that rising sea levels, and you’ve got higher storm surges and the kind of destructive flooding that happened when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas recently.

“We do think the incidence of the high-intensity events is going up, and that’s sort of what matters for society,” Emanuel told the Los Angeles Times. “Those are the destructive ones.”

Not quite the doomsday scenario that could have wiped out life once before, but worrying nonetheless.

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