European hurricanes are exceptionally rare — but they could become more common

Hurricane Ophelia, which on Friday was a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 100 mph, is headed towards Europe.

If that news made you stop in surprise, you're not alone.

It might sound absurd — you don't often hear about named Atlantic storms hitting anywhere in Europe. But what's happening with Ophelia is not that uncommon. It is also possible that more named storms will start curving towards Europe in the coming years in a way that is exceptional compared to what storms usually do.

The National Hurricane Center predicts Ophelia will hit Ireland and the UK as a powerful post-tropical cyclone on Monday.

Related: History of U.S. hurricanes

16 PHOTOS
15 of the deadliest American hurricanes ever
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15 of the deadliest American hurricanes ever

Hurricane Hugo, 1989: 21 deaths

Hurricane Hugo made landfall as a Category 4 storm in South Carolina. It caused 21 deaths in the US and resulted in $7.1 billion of damage. At the time, it was the costliest storm in US history.

Photo courtesy: Getty

Tropical Storm Allison, 2001: 41 deaths

While not an official hurricane, Allison clocks in as the costliest and deadliest tropical storm in US history, causing 41 deaths and costing more than $5 billion in damage. The storm started over the Gulf of Mexico near Texas, then traveled east, causing floods like the one pictured here in Houston, Texas.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

Hurricane Irene, 2011: 56 deaths

Hurricane Irene, the first storm to hit the US since Ike three years earlier, made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm. The storm eventually made its way up to New York City, bringing flooding -- like the kind pictured here in Puerto Rico -- and causing $7.3 billion in damage overall.

Photo courtesy: AP

Hurricane Floyd, 1999: 57 deaths

Hurricane Floyd was a catastrophic storm because of the rain it brought along. The rain caused extreme flooding from North Carolina on up as the Category 2 storm traveled up the East Coast.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

Great Atlantic Hurricane, 1944: 64 deaths

The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 was also devastating to New England, with 64 deaths and more than $100 million in damage. The storm was a Category 3 as it sped up the coast, hitting the Carolinas, Rhode Island, and Long Island before downgrading to a Category 2 in Maine.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

Hurricane Agnes, 1972: 122 deaths

Hurricane Agnes, as seen in this image made it all the way inland to Pennsylvania. Although it was only a Category 1 storm (with winds from 74-95 mph), it still caused 122 deaths and caused $2.1 billion in damage.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

Hurricane Ike, 2008: 195 deaths

The third costliest storm in US history, with $29.5 billion in damage, occurred in September 2008. Starting off the west coast of Africa, Hurricane Ike made its way over the Caribbean and into the Gulf, making US landfall in Texas as a Category 2 storm

Photo courtesy: Reuters

Hurricane Camille, 1969: 256 deaths

Hurricane Camille formed in the Gulf of Mexico and hit Mississippi as a Category 5 storm. Camille caused more than 256 deaths and clocks in as the second most intense hurricane to hit the US.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

New England, 1938: 256 deaths

Nicknamed "Long Island Express," the storm hit Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm before charging north and hitting Long Island, New York and Connecticut as a Category 3 hurricane. The storm was responsible for more than 256 deaths.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

Hurricane Sandy, 2012: 285 deaths

With $71.4 billion in damage, Hurricane Sandy was the second costliest hurricane in US history. The Category 1 storm pummeled New York City, flooding the city's transportation systems and leaving thousands of homes destroyed.

It's looking more and more like Hurricane Joaquin won't make landfall in the US and join the list of most horrific storms in US history.

Photo courtesy: AP

Hurricane Audrey, 1957: 416 deaths

The U.S. started naming storms with women's names starting in 1953. Hurricane Audrey, the first storm of the 1957 hurricane season was the deadliest of the 1950s. It originated in the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall in Texas as a Category 4 storm. This image of the storm shows just how far hurricane imaging has come.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

Atlantic-Gulf, 1919: 600 to 900 deaths

This Category 4 storm swept into the Gulf of Mexico right under Key West, Florida(pictured), landing as a Category 3 storm in Corpus Christi, Texas. Anywhere from 600 to 900 people died in that storm.

Hurricane Katrina, 2005: 1,200 deaths

Hurricane Katrina is arguably the most notorious storm of the 21st century. The storm made landfall as a Category 5 near Miami before striking Louisiana as a Category 3 storm. Katrina was the third deadliest, and costliest hurricane in U.S. history with more than 1,200 deaths and $108 billion in damage.

Photo courtesy: Reuters

San Felipe Okeechobee, 1928: 2,500 deaths

This hurricane was the second deadliest in US history, with more than 2,500 deaths. The Category 4 storm made landfall in Palm Beach on September 10, 1928. Puerto Rico got hit hard as well, with winds at 144 mph.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

Galveston, Texas in 1900: 8,000 to 12,000 deaths

The deadliest hurricane in US history happened at the turn of the 20th century. The Category 4 of 5 hurricane -- with winds anywhere from 130-156 mph -- made landfall in Galveston, Texas (pictured), then headed north through the Great Plains. Anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 people died in the storm.

Photo courtesy: Creative Commons

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By the time Ophelia is over the cool water that far north, it'll lose the cyclonic structure that characterizes tropical storms and hurricanes. Instead, Ophelia will be a big weather system, leftover from a cyclone.

It will still be a strong storm. Already, Ophelia set a record for being the strongest an Atlantic hurricane has ever been this far east so late in the year. By the time it reaches Ireland it could still have hurricane-force winds, which would make it an exceptional weather event.

But post-tropical cyclones and the remnants of hurricanes curve up and hit Ireland and the UK fairly regularly — they just tend to arrive as stormy weather carried in that direction by the jet stream. The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang recently conducted an analysis of historical records and found that conservatively, this tends to happen about every 3.5 years or so.

This could start to happen more frequently, however. A study published in 2013 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters concluded that climate models of a warmer world predicted by ongoing global warming showed more storms could survive to hit Europe. Higher sea surface temperatures (which, along with weak wind shear, have helped Ophelia maintain its status so far) could help storms maintain that cyclonic structure as they travel towards Europe, causing the same sorts of storms that hit the US East Coast to hit western Europe.

Related: Stars step up for Harvey relief

14 PHOTOS
Celebrities' big donations to Hurricane Harvey relief
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Celebrities' big donations to Hurricane Harvey relief
Sandra Bullock made a $1 million personal donation to the Red Cross: “There are no politics in eight feet of water,” she said. “There are human beings in eight feet of water.”
Drake gave $200,000 in response to Kevin Hart's public call for celebrity donations.
Of his $1 million donation, Tyler Perry delegated $250,000 to Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church.
Leonardo DiCaprio donated $1 million to the United Way Harvey Recovery Fund. In the past, he has made hefty donations to victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Ellen DeGeneres teamed up with Walmart to announce a $1 million contribution to a relief fund established by JJ Watt, boosting him closer to his goal of $10 million in donations.
Miley Cyrus began crying on "The Ellen Show" after Ellen DeGeneres announced Miley would donate $500,000: "My grandma's sitting here, and my mom's sitting here, and I go home to my seven dogs, and if I didn't have that anymore, it'd just be really hard," she said through tears.
The Kardashian/Jenner women -- Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kris, Kylie and Kendall -- announced a joint $500,000 personal donation to hurricane victims.
The first major celebrity to make a public donation, Kevin Hart successfully rallied other celebrities to join his fundraising efforts. He pledged $50,000.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was one of the first celebrities to donate to relief causes, offering up $50,000 in response to Kevin Hart's campaign.
DJ Khaled dropped $25,000 and offered his prayers to the people of Houston.
Nicki Minaj re-posted Kevin Hart's public video plea on Instagram and announced she'd donate $25,000 to the cause. 
Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez each donated $25,000 and urged their followers to consider contributing to the Red Cross as well.
Green Day gifted a $100,000 donation to Hurricane Harvey relief.
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"We anticipate an increase in severe storms of predominantly tropical origin reaching western Europe as part of 21st century global warming," the authors wrote.

Meteorologist Marshall Shepherd, writing in Forbes, recently noted that another 2014 study published in Nature found that storms were already starting to strengthen further away from the tropics.

Up until this point, the Atlantic hurricanes that tend to slam the Caribbean, Gulf Coast, and East Coast have mostly avoided Europe. Even Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula, at the southwestern corner of Europe, have largely been untouched (a tropical depression left by Hurricane Vince hit there in 2005 and another storm hit in 1842).

The overall effect of climate change on hurricanes isn't entirely clear. Many researchers think the number of Atlantic hurricanes may go down but the intensity of these storms could go up.

But if present models are correct, Europe may need to prepare for more of these storms in the future.

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