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Zeta, 2020’s 27th Named Storm, Bears Down on Louisiana

Downgraded to a tropical storm after striking Mexico, Zeta is expected to regain strength and make landfall in the U.S. as a Category 1 hurricane

Satellite imagery of Tropical Storm Zeta as it passes over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. (NOAA)
smithsonianmag.com

Hurricane Zeta has been downgraded to a tropical storm, but is forecast to strengthen and become a hurricane again later on Tuesday, reports Henry Fountain of the New York Times.

On Monday, the churning storm struck Mexico’s northern Yucatan Peninsula with heavy rains and high winds as a Category 1 hurricane. Zeta is now traversing the Gulf of Mexico and is expected to make landfall in the United States’ Gulf Coast on Wednesday afternoon or evening, reports Madeline Holcombe for CNN.

The storm is part of 2020’s extremely active Atlantic hurricane season, which has now produced 27 named storms—just one shy of 2005’s record-setting 28 storms, according to the Times. The season concludes in November, but it’s possible another one to three storms will form, writes Matthew Cappucci for the Washington Post, pushing 2020 into unprecedented territory on yet another front.

Assuming Zeta makes landfall in the U.S., it will be the 11th named storm to slam into the nation’s shores, a new record, according to the Post. Current projections have the storm hitting Louisiana’s low-lying coastline, which has already weathered Hurricane Laura in August and Hurricane Delta earlier this month. The governor of Louisiana has declared a state of emergency as the state prepares for Zeta’s threats of a storm surge of four to six feet and a predicted six inches of rain, reports Maria Cramer for the New York Times. The state has activated more than 1,150 members of its National Guard who will use high-water vehicles, boats and helicopters to aid in rescue efforts, according to CNN.

If forecasts prove correct, Zeta’s destruction will primarily be wrought by its water rather than its wind, Fountain reports for the Times. This pattern continues a trend of increasingly wet hurricanes that has been linked to climate change, per the Times. The connection between wetter tropical storms and hurricanes comes down to the simple fact that average air temperatures are warmer. That warmer air holds additional moisture, allowing storms to accumulate more moisture as they move over the ocean. The Times notes that studies reviewing specific storms—such as Hurricane Harvey, which unloaded four feet of rain on the Houston area—have concluded that climate change made such tempests more likely to occur.

But these tropical storms are also delivering greater quantities of water because many are moving over the landscape more slowly, reported Sarah Gibbens for National Geographic in September. Last month, Hurricane Sally crawled over the Gulf Coast at just 3 miles per hour, and dropped 20 to 30 inches of rain over a much more concentrated area in the process. A 2018 paper found that hurricanes are now 10 percent slower than they were in 1950.

Emerging research connects this trend to climate change, though it remains an area of some debate. According to National Geographic, many scientists think the reason winds are slowing across the entire planet is that human-caused climate change has disproportionately warmed Earth’s polar regions. This slows down Earth’s winds because most wind is generated as a result of the difference in temperature between the two regions, with greater discrepancies generally creating more powerful wind patterns.

As of Tuesday morning, Zeta was moving northwest at 14 miles per hour and expected to speed up, according to the Times.

In a statement, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards says his state, “must roll up our sleeves, like we always do,” noting that “a tropical threat during the ongoing COVID-19 emergency is challenging, but something we can handle.”

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