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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
#3 – Wang and Wu. (2013)
#4 – Sobel et al. (2016)
#10 – Emanual (2005)
—Meteorologist Nick Humphrey