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Hurricanes are one of nature's most powerful and frightening storms, but some experts worry that they could become even more fearsome in the decades ahead because of global warming.

The speculation that climate change could create strong hurricanes has even led to new names for these types of storms: supercanes or hypercanes.

These weather disturbances would occupy a new rank, above today's most powerful, Category 5 hurricanes packing winds greater than 249 kilometres an hour.

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Supercanes would be "a notch above what we're used to," said Henry Hengeveld, Environment Canada's science adviser on climate change. "Maybe they'll have to add some new categories. Maybe they'll have to go into a Category 6," he said.

Category 5 hurricanes are powerful enough to rip the roofs off homes and completely destroy mobile homes.

So far, supercanes are purely the stuff of theoretical science because none have occurred yet. Hurricane Isabel, while it packed a punch at sea with 260-km/h winds, was little more than a strong summer rainstorm when it swept through Southern Ontario yesterday.

Mr. Hengeveld said scientific research into the effects of global warming on hurricanes is in its infancy, but computer models indicate that more powerful storms will likely develop.

"We really don't know what is going to happen to hurricane frequency under warming climate, although the risk of intense ones, very intense ones, may go up," he said.

Global warming could produce these stronger hurricanes by increasing the temperature of water in the ocean. Hurricanes need sea-surface temperatures of at least 26 degrees to develop.

With climate change, both ocean temperatures and the size of the area of the sea capable of spawning hurricanes will rise, providing more energy to fuel intense tropical storms.

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This region in the Atlantic currently stretches from Africa to the Caribbean.

Scientists are less certain whether global warming will increase the number of hurricanes, which has risen sharply in recent years. According to figures from Environment Canada, there have been more tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic area in the past 10 years than in any decade on record.

Since 1951, there have been an average of 10 named tropical storms a year, six of which have developed into full-blown hurricanes. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the federal government's Canadian Hurricane Centre predicted 11 to 15 named storms this year, with six to nine turning into full-blown hurricanes.

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