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Winter Hurricane Shows Atlantic’s Warmth

(CN) - The center of an extraordinarily rare winter hurricane made landfall early Friday on a group of Portuguese islands, packing unseasonable winds and heavy rain.

Hurricane Alex, the first to form in January since 1938, crashed into the Azores with sustained wind speeds of 70 mph before transitioning into a nontropical low-pressure system Friday.

The Azores are a formation of nine volcanic islands 800 miles west of Portugal's mainland. All previous hurricanes to track within 200 miles of the archipelago occurred in August and September.

According to the National Hurricane Center, Alex was the strongest January hurricane on record and just the fourth recognized since records began in 1851. The low pressure system began forming near Bermuda on Jan. 7 before moving southeast through the Atlantic to become the first named hurricane of the 2016 season on Thursday.

The unusual storm formed more than four months early, as the Atlantic hurricane season officially runs June 1 through November. Alex is also only the second hurricane on record to form in the Atlantic basin, east of 30 degrees west longitude and north of 30 degrees north latitude, according to National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration hurricane specialist Eric Blake.

While Alex may have piled up the weather anomalies this week, the Category 1 hurricane didn't cause any reports of major damage on the islands as of Friday morning.

Experts say the storm isn't directly related to a strong El Nino pattern holding in the Pacific Ocean and that winter Atlantic hurricanes are typically spurred by a combination of cold winds and above-average ocean temperatures. Though odd, preseason tropical storms are usually relatively weak because of a lack of warm surface water available to drive the storms.

Tropical storms before June occur on average about once every 10 years, and generally in May. The last preseason storm was Tropical Storm Ana in May 2015.

The oddities of Hurricane Alex coincide with a new study released by NOAA scientists Thursday that monitored the accelerated warming of the Atlantic's western region. NOAA researchers found that the Gulf of Maine warmed faster than 99 percent of the global ocean over the last ten years and that it's likely to continue warming three times faster than the rest of the oceans.

The study, Enhanced Warming of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean Under Climate Change, said prior estimates of the Atlantic's warming were far too conservative and that climate change projections and models need to be improved.

"It is like comparing an old standard definition television screen to today's ultra-high definition screens," Vincent Saba, a NOAA fisheries scientist and lead author of the study, said. "There aren't many high-resolution global climate models available due to their prohibitive cost."

The researchers used four global climate models to monitor ocean temperatures in the U.S. Northeast Shelf and experts attribute the accelerated warming to a northerly shift in the Gulf Stream.

The study found that most current global climate models are likely misrepresenting the position of the Gulf Stream due to "coarse resolution models. NOAA scientists say their warming projections have less bias because they are based off a higher resolution climate model.

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