Global Climate Change and its Potential Connection to Hurricane Activity (cited research)

Because of recent North Atlantic Hurricane Season activity…many people have questioned whether hurricanes are becoming stronger and more numerous because of climate change. In the social media universe, I’ve seen many opinionated debates within the general public, as well as meteorologists and perhaps a few sprinkling of climatologist opinions here and there. Not to mention, interesting statements from non-climate scientists. What I have not seen much, however, is any discussion of peer-reviewed research on the topic. There’s so much knowledge being gathered every year by scientists trying to answer important questions about our past, present and future. How climate change will impact regional weather and climates is one of the most important questions because of potential impacts to people, agriculture and natural resources.

I decided to do a (very brief) search of literature on science’s current understanding of climate change as it relates to tropical cyclones. I looked into both the potential connection of global warming to these events in the current climate (attribution), as well as projections for these events based on the “business-as-usual” scenario for carbon dioxide emissions, which is a high emissions scenario and steady increase in CO2 concentration. Research cited are just a sampling of what’s out there and what I looked over. Here are some themes I found interesting (takeaway statements at the end):

Climate models* appear to show a signal toward more intense (Category 4-5 Saffir-Simpson) tropical cyclones overall in the world by the latter half of the 21st century. However, there is also a potential for a downward trend in cyclone numbers in many basins (see #1-4).

The decrease in overall cyclone numbers by the second half of the century is thought to be a product of increasing vertical wind shear over tropical oceans limiting weaker storms. However, many researchers expect there to be a significant upward trend in more intense storms (Category 4-5) as the oceans continue to warm and tropical cyclone formation and track density moves poleward. So formerly less favorable sub-regions of basins may see an overall increase in cyclone activity (with more storms which will be stronger than before in those regions) and in the increasingly less hospitable regions (over the long term), storms which do form when conditions are favorable on short time scales may see cyclones which are also more intense than in years past.

As for historical conditions leading to the present…there does not appear to be a conclusive signature by global warming on tropical cyclone intensity outside of natural variability on a global scale (3-4). However, some regional signals related to frequency changes are being actively studied. 

There is some suggestion (4) based on modeling past climate change to the present time that warming (which would enhance the potential intensity for hurricanes) has been muted by the industrial production of aerosols (particulates like sulfates and nitrates), which actually reflect sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface. However, as warming continues into mid-century, its effect of trapping heat will begin to significantly exceed aerosol cooling effects leading to the more pronounced impacts on cyclone intensity stated earlier (unless CO2 emissions are significantly reduced soon). So while global warming is happening in the background, hurricane potential intensity as we currently witness it is likely still being dominated by natural cycles. (For more on climate change research into tropical cyclones, you can also see this webinar done by climate change researcher Dr. Kerry Emanuel for Climate Central).

With that said, some researchers see signs of a global warming signature associated with recent increased tropical cyclone *frequency* in sub-regions of basins. These include the far eastern portion of the North Atlantic Basin (4), close to the East Asian Coast (5), and a portion of the North-Central Pacific Basin (6). Research is still ongoing on global warming’s past and future influence on activity in individual tropical cyclone basins.

Meanwhile, there is evidence of other impacts related to tropical cyclones (and other significant weather phenomena) and climate change. These include higher rainfall rates (7) and higher storm surge related to sea-level rise from the melting polar ice sheets and thermal expansion of the oceans (8). In addition, there is some scientific evidence that tropical cyclones in recent decades have begun to intensify more rapidly because of increased ocean warming (9). And while not completely clear yet whether it is fully tied to climate change, it is known that the observed North Atlantic Power Dissipation Index (PDI) has increased significantly since the mid-1970s (10; positively correlated to sea surface temperatures) and globally, the strongest tropical cyclones in respective basins have grown stronger since 1981 (Elsner et al, 2008…not included here). Note that scientific critics point out the use of observational data with differences in quality – satellite intensity estimates and reconnaissance flights (or lack of them) – over recent decades could put some uncertainty in these results.

My thoughts? Although inconclusive, possible intensity signals may be a hint of the projected effects of climate change as PDI and high-end cyclone intensity are highly correlated to sea surface temperatures. SSTs are increasing from global warming and this would connect with what climate models suggest of future tropical cyclone activity, if these historical trends are, in fact partially related to climate change.

The Takeaways:

  1. Tropical cyclone intensity at the highest end of the scale appears likely to increase through the 21st century because of climate change, especially if human civilization does not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions soon.
  2. While a current climate change signal to intensity is difficult to detect and still a matter of debate, storms in recent decades appear to be intensifying faster, are capable of producing more extreme precipitation events and higher storm surges because of rising sea levels caused by ice sheet melting and thermal ocean expansion. There also appears to be some detectable changes in frequency of storms within individual basins which may locally enhance risk.
  3. Regardless of the exact changes in frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, the risks to individuals and society because of climate change will increase into the coming decades. It will be important for people and governments to make decisions (beyond greenhouse gas emissions) related to property, coastal land use and emergency management policy to mitigate increasing tropical cyclone hazards, particularly from water (storm surge/inland flooding).

Note: It is of EXTREME importance that those with a desire to communicate climate change issues try to inform our fellow citizens to the best of our ability. Climate change is one of the important issues facing our world (the impact on the global food supply and human health may be actually of greatest importance, but rarely discussed as those aren’t “sexy” topics…). People have their thoughts on the issue based on experiences, politics, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. However, at the end of the day, we must inform and connect what we know to people’s concerns and allow people to decide as they may. Without censorship (“We can’t discuss climate change right now!”) or nonsensical exaggerations (“So many hurricanes, it’s a new era of superstorms!”). Stay informed (give informed opinions) and tell people why they should care as it relates to their lives. Like everything else we should communicate to the concerns of people. Considering most Americans are now, in fact, concerned about climate change, there’s really NO excuse not to discuss the issue in a serious, informed manner if we have the interest to discuss it at all. 

Additional Note: *-Climate models are not weather forecast models. They do not forecast the atmosphere using initial conditions, but take a climate state (for example, our current climate) and adjust “forcings” on the climate system (carbon dioxide emissions for example). The effect of these changes to “boundary conditions” over time are interpreted for land, sea, the cryosphere and (for Earth System models), the biosphere. Global climate is based on thermodynamic and hydrologic balances which will look for equilibrium when changes to a part of the system are applied. (For more on climate models you can see this webinar by Research Meteorologist Keith Dixon of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory for Climate Central).

References (links are PDFs):

#1 – Bell et al. (2013)

#2 – Murakami et al. (2011)

#3 – Wang and Wu. (2013)

#4 –  Sobel et al. (2016)

#5 – Cheng-lin et al. (2016)

#6 – Murakami et al. (2015)

#7 – Knutson et al. (2013)

#8 – Jevrejeva et al. (2016)

#9 – Kishtawal et al. (2012)

#10 – Emanual (2005)

—Meteorologist Nick Humphrey


Tropical Storm Gert View

Anyone been watching the North Atlantic this weekend. Beautiful view of Tropical Storm Gert this midday Monday. It will remain well offshore the US East Coast and west of Bermuda as it re-curves to the north this week. I may also become a hurricane as it does so by mid-week thanks to interaction with the Gulf Stream and favorable pole-ward outflow as it interacts initially with the westerlies prior to extratropical transition late-week.

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On the docket this week for Weather & Climate News –

  1. The Great American Total Solar Eclipse is ONE WEEK AWAY! Will discuss national weather and other things eclipse-related.
  2. More on potential tropical activity.
  3. Will continue with Part 2 of WxClimoEd discussing impacts of Global Climate Change.

For the Eclipse, my fiance and I’ll be heading to Grand Island, NE for the eclipse where totality will last 2 minutes 33 seconds (compared to the south side of Lincoln where the eclipse will only last 1 min 45 sec). We’ll have our 1 yr old with us (his birthday is August 17!) and will hangout with a couple of my fiance’s relatives in town. Should be exciting!

Category 1 Hurricane Franklin making landfall on the East Coast of Mexico

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Hurricane Franklin is making landfall on the East Coast of Mexico Wednesday night/early Thursday morning (~midnight CDT Thursday) with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph with gusts likely over 100 mph. Besides damaging wind gusts, very heavy rain – up to a foot or more – will be possible in the mountainous terrain once the system moves inland and weakens during the day Thursday.  Life threatening flash flooding and mudslides will be the greatest threats to any populated mountain areas (storm surge will be the hazard for coastal areas in the hurricane warning area tonight).

NOAA Raises North Atlantic Tropical Activity Forecast

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration raised its confidence today that the North Atlantic Basin would have an “very active” season. They called for 14-19 named storms, 5-9 hurricanes, 2-5 major hurricanes. A normal season averages 11 named storms, 6 hurricanes, 2 major hurricanes.

The reasoning for this activity forecast include 1) No El-Nino in the Eastern Pacific which would otherwise produce unfavorable vertical wind shear and cooler sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic 2) Above normal sea surface temperatures across the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Main Development Region (open tropical Atlantic) 3) The continuation of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation favoring above normal oceanic heat content.

So far, we are at 6 named storms, 1 hurricane, 0 major hurricanes (assuming no surprise intensification of Franklin prior to landfall).

WxClimoEd Series, Post #1, Part 1: Understanding Global Climate Change

Hello Weather & Climate News readers! This post will be the first in what will be my ongoing education article series WxClimoEd. I hope to write educational posts on various topics related to weather and climate to help enhance your understanding of various phenomena and their impact on the environment, individuals and society. These posts will present key ideas and concepts and provide occasional linked sources to further, more detailed information.

Understanding Global Climate Change (Causes)

This article will deal with an introductory explanation of Global Climate Change as we currently understand it and the causes of it, specifically relating to human activity. Part 2 (in the next week) will discuss the known (and unknown) impacts on humanity and wildlife based on impacts on regional climates. Part 3 (in a couple weeks) will discuss mitigation efforts.

  1. Natural Climate Variability vs. Recent Global Climate Change

Earth’s climate has been evolving since the planet was born 4.6 billion years ago. These changes in Earth’s atmosphere have been largely the result of things such as biological modification of the atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, changes in ocean currents, movement of continents over tens of millions of years, variations in Earth’s orbit and other various phenomena. The most recent history of climate has featured periods of glaciation over much of the landmasses known as the Ice Ages.

Earth’s global climate has been in a “interglacial” period with a climate which warmed enough to end major continental glaciation around 11,000 yrs ago.

However, what scientists have seen in the recent climate records is a rate of change -both the climate conditions themselves and the atmospheric gases which can change the climate – at a rate accelerated and in some cases unprecedented in previous times.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels going back 450,000 yrs. There have been multiple periods of glaciation and interglacial periods as part of natural change (high/low CO2 = warm/cold), but CO2 has not exceeded much above 300 parts per million until the 20th century. (NASA)

What scientists in the second half of the 20th century discovered is that for the first time in the history of human civilization we are acting as a force influencing the climate. Human-induced climate change is real.

This has been found after accounting for the natural variability in climate cycles and from our understanding of how carbon dioxide works in the atmosphere. This extremely rapid change in global temperatures, a top signal of climate change, has been driven by CO2 pollution, beginning after 1850 and the during the Second Industrial Revolution.

Graph showing the correlation between global temperatures (anomaly relative to the 1881-1910 average) and CO2 concentration 1880-2016. CO2 is known physically to be capable of “trapping” heat in higher concentration. (Climate Central)

One of the first questions which many non-scientists have about global climate change is “Well hasn’t the climate always been changing?” The answer is yes, but with a caveat…it has NOT changed this rapidly in the history of humanity on Earth (Homo sapiens sapiens have been around ~200,000 yrs). Since Earth began the process out of the last glaciation 22,000 yrs ago, global temperatures have varied up to a 4 degrees C. But this process of variability has occurred over the course of centuries to a couple of millennia because of the long cycling of natural processes. Human activity in the form of burning fossil fuels since the latter 19th century has caused around 1 degree C of warming within a 100-150 yr period. This comic comparing the average temperature of Earth to the end of the Ice Age and achievements of human civilization across millennia strongly illustrate the climate stability we’ve come to flourish under. (zoom in at the top and scroll down…it’s long, but worth the read and look!). Humans have essentially acted as a continuously spewing ‘volcano’ of carbon products. And as a result, we have compressed warming which would take nature nearly a millennia to do in recent geologic time and accomplished it within a century.

We are transforming our world before our eyes.

2. How does the greenhouse effect work?

The greenhouse effect is a simple concept, but one with major implications for us all in this major environmental issue. In Earth’s atmosphere exists gases which are chemically capable of “trapping” heat in the lower atmosphere, heating the surface. The three most significant “greenhouse gases” are carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane. These gases in higher concentrations are most effective in reflecting infrared (heat) radiation originally emitted by Earth’s surface back to the surface as opposed to allowing it to be lost to space. If it wasn’t for this greenhouse effect, Earth would be literally completely glaciated over and very cold.

Example graphic showing the “radiation budget” and how the greenhouse effect impacts how much radiation is retained by Earth’s atmosphere. (By Wikipedia user ZooFari)

Methane is very potent, but short-lived without constant replacement as direct sunlight breaks the molecules apart. Water vapor varies seasonally with some balance because of the water cycle. Therefore carbon dioxide or CO2 ends up being the most important changing variable for warming/cooling the climate. Such changes, along with other variable cycles, have influenced previous periods of ice ages. But human “eruption” of CO2 since the 2nd half of the 19th century has led to clear changes in Earth’s atmosphere and climate.

This YouTube video shows 131 yrs of global warming (1880-2011). The “anomalous temperature” is relative to the average planetary temperature of 1880-1910. The average temperature of Earth has continued to warm above this average to record levels since 2011. The planet is known to have warmed by ~1 degree C (nearly 2 F) since the late 19th century. The most dramatic warming (as can be seen in the video) began to ramp up significantly since 1980. Depending on the scenario, human-induced warming of Earth may reach 1.5-2 degrees C (2.7-3.6 F) above pre-industrial levels by 2050 and (depending on human efforts to decrease CO2 pollution) the warming may hit 2-4+ degrees C (3.6-7.2+ F) by 2100.

3. The importance the rate of warming

Such rapid rates of warming are what alarms climatologists and those who understand the importance of climate stability for life and society on Earth. Remember the last time you saw a wholly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, wholly rhino, or an indigenous North American horse? Never because they all went extinct from the “rapid” climate change of the final end of the ice age glaciation 11,000 yrs ago. What’s “rapid”? Temperatures warmed more than 2.5 degrees C over the course of 1500 years. We may accomplish that in 150-200 yrs! Incredible. But yet the “rapid” natural changes were not non-consequential. Many more species than listed which couldn’t adapt died out over hundreds to a couple thousand years. And minor variations in global climate by 0.5 degrees C or less – or even significant regional variations which barely showed up on the global signature – have led to major losses in agriculture and economics producing stresses on some nations (poverty, famines, wars) and in some cases, isolated civilizations simply died out. Having such rapid, unprecedented warming is a cause for concern because too many species (and many socio-economic or geographically vulnerable peoples) may face significant harm in the face of an inability to adapt to transforming climate regimes.

In Part 2, later this week, I’ll discuss the effect climate change has on regional climates and likely impacts being faced by humans and wildlife as the climate continues to heat up extremely quickly.

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