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Storms will be more intense, more frequent: MIT climatologist

NASA released this animation of imagery from its GOES-13 satellite of Superstorm Sandy from its development in the Caribbean on October 23, 2012, through its eventual weakening to a remnant low pressure area on October 31, 2012. Courtesy NASA.gov.

A respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) climatologist says that storms with the ferocity of Hurricane Sandy will likely continue to strike throughout this century.

Published in Monday's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study says the U.S. East Coast and Asia are the most likely to be hit by strong storms, and it will happen more frequently than ever before.

Through a unique approach to climate modeling, Kerry Emanuel predicts a 40 percent global increase in tropical cyclones of Category 3 or higher, with the highest frequency expected around the middle of the century. Tropical cyclones include hurricanes, typhoons and tropical storms.

"This isn't a 'climate model.' It is an analysis formed by taking the output of six different climate models, and analyzing that in a way that allows Emanuel to estimate the number and intensity of [tropical cyclones] given the different background conditions," NASA climate modeller Gavin Schmidt explained to CBSNews.com.

"There have been a number of attempts to [do] similar calculations and they have given quite a wide range of results," he added. "This seems to have been done well, but to conclude that this is a likely outcome is premature."

According to Emanuel's study, storms that would have once been Category 1, 2 and 3 will likely become Category 3, 4 and higher due to harsher winds. He links the increased intensity with warming ocean waters, which provide more fuel for hurricanes -- warming water produces water vapor, which turns to rain. That process lets off heat, in turn fueling the tropical cyclones.

Emanuel is the author of What We Know About Climate Change, a guide that Mother Jones called the "most comprehensible, readable, BS-free rundown on the topic that you're likely to find." A Republican since the 1970s, Emanuel is often criticized by others in the political party.

After Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012, Emanuel told Slate: "One of the very definite predictions of climate research is that all storms, regardless of exactly what kind of storm, should rain more going forward because there is just more water vapor in the atmosphere when it gets warmer."

His latest research builds on this, offering a more data-driven explanation of what storms will look like over the next century. But, in a microcosm of the confusion that has fueled a debate over the reality of climate change, this study actually contradicts Emanuel's earlier work and other research. Based on an earlier set of climate models, that researche predicted stronger yet less frequent storms along the U.S. East Coast.

"The differences are because there are substantial uncertainties in how to do this. And those uncertainties increase strongly when you try to localize this to a specific region," explained Schmidt.

"Different studies will come along with different results and we will be unable to come to a clear consensus on this for years. It's just hard."

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.