Should there be a Category 6 for hurricanes? These climate scientists say yes

As temperatures rise and the world’s oceans store more potential fuel for storms, a new study proposes adapting the scale that measures the intensity of hurricanes to account for stronger storms.

The Saffir-Simpson scale currently goes from Category 1 to 5; the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, suggests adding a Category 6.

A Category 5 hurricane is a storm that has sustained winds of 157 mph or greater. The new scale would cap Category 5 storms at 192 mph and anything above 192 mph would become a Category 6 hurricane.

The study’s authors – Jim Kossin, a distinguished science advisor at the First Street Foundation, and Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – argue as climate change leads to soaring ocean temperatures, the potential wind intensity of hurricanes – also known as tropical cyclones or typhoons in oceans outside the Atlantic and East Pacific – is increasing.

In fact, of the 197 tropical cyclones worldwide that reached Category 5 status between 1980 and 2021, five exceeded the hypothetical Category 6 threshold, the study found. All five occurred since 2013, including 2015’s Hurricane Patricia, which hit Mexico, and Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013.

Hurricane Patricia is seen churning in the Pacific on October 23, 2015. - NOAA/Getty Images

Hurricane Patricia is seen churning in the Pacific on October 23, 2015. – NOAA/Getty Images

But the idea of adding a Category 6 to the scale is nothing new: It’s been discussed for years.

The Saffir-Simpson scale, which has been around since the early 1970s, also has limitations in that it is only a wind scale and does not include the impacts of storm surge and rain-induced flooding, which can be the most deadly and damage-causing aspects of landfalling storms.

As the planet warms, these impacts of hurricanes are becoming more dangerous. Sea level rise of only a couple of inches can make a dramatic difference in how far inland storm surge can travel, and a warmer climate also means there will be more water vapor available in the atmosphere to potentially fall as rain.

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