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Despite significant improvement in computational and observational capabilities, predicting intensity and intensification of major tropical cyclones remains a challenge. In 2017 Hurricane Maria intensified to a Category 5 storm within 24 h, devastating Puerto Rico. In 2019 Hurricane Dorian, predicted to remain tropical storm, unexpectedly intensified into a Category 5 storm and destroyed the Bahamas. The official forecast and computer models were unable to predict rapid intensification of these storms. One possible reason for this is that key physics, including microscale processes at the air-sea interface, are poorly understood and parameterized in existing forecast models. Here we show that surfactants significantly affect the generation of sea spray, which provides some of the fuel for tropical cyclones and their intensification, but also provides some of the drag that limits intensity and intensification. Using a numerical model verified with a laboratory experiment, which predicts spray radii distribution starting from a 100 μm radius, we show that surfactants increase spray generation by 20–34%. We anticipate that bio-surfactants affect heat, energy, and momentum exchange through altered size distribution and concentration of sea spray, with consequences for tropical cyclone intensification or decline, particularly in areas of algal blooms and near coral reefs, as well as in areas affected by oil spills and dispersants.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.