Hurricanes and Global Warming – Is There a Connection?

In the particular simulation shown above, the frequency of the strongest (category 5) hurricanes roughly triples in the anthropogenic climate change scenario relative to the control. This suggests that hurricanes may indeed become more destructive (1) as tropical SSTs warm due to anthropogenic impacts.

But what about the past? What do the observations of the last century actually show? Some past studies (e.g. Goldenberg et al, 2001) assert that there is no evidence of any long-term increase in statistical measures of tropical Atlantic hurricane activity, despite the ongoing global warming. These studies, however, have focused on the frequency of all tropical storms and hurricanes (lumping the weak ones in with the strong ones) rather than a measure of changes in the intensity of the storms. As we have discussed elsewhere on this site, statistical measures that focus on trends in the strongest category storms, maximum hurricane winds, and changes in minimum central pressures, suggest a systematic increase in the intensities of those storms that form. This finding is consistent with the model simulations.

A recent study in Nature by Emanuel (2005) examined, for the first time, a statistical measure of the power dissipation associated with past hurricane activity (i.e., the “Power Dissipation Index” or “PDI”–Fig. 2). Emanuel found a close correlation between increases in this measure of hurricane activity (which is likely a better measure of the destructive potential of the storms than previously used measures) and rising tropical North Atlantic SST, consistent with basic theoretical expectations. As tropical SSTs have increased in past decades, so has the intrinsic destructive potential of hurricanes.

Figure 2. Measure of total power dissipated annually by tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic (the power dissipation index “PDI”) compared to September tropical North Atlantic SST (from Emanuel, 2005)

The key question then becomes this: Why has SST increased in the tropics? Is this increase due to global warming (which is almost certainly in large part due to human impacts on climate)? Or is this increase part of a natural cycle?

It has been asserted (for example, by the NOAA National Hurricane Center) that the recent upturn in hurricane activity is due to a natural cycle, e.g. the so-called Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (“AMO”). The new results by Emanuel (Fig. 2) argue against this hypothesis being the sole explanation: the recent increase in SST (at least for September as shown in the Figure) is well outside the range of any past oscillations. Emanuel therefore concludes in his paper that “the large upswing in the last decade is unprecedented, and probably reflects the effect of global warming.” However, caution is always warranted with very new scientific results until they have been thoroughly discussed by the community and either supported or challenged by further analyses. Previous analysis of the AMO and natural oscillation modes in the Atlantic (Delworth and Mann, 2000; Kerr, 2000) suggest that the amplitude of natural SST variations averaged over the tropics is about 0.1-0.2 ºC, so a swing from the coldest to warmest phase could explain up to ~0.4 ºC warming.

What about the alternative hypothesis: the contribution of anthropogenic greenhouse gases to tropical SST warming? How strong do we expect this to be? One way to estimate this is to use climate models. Driven by anthropogenic forcings, these show a warming of tropical SST in the Atlantic of about 0.2 – 0.5 ºC. Globally, SST has increased by ~0.6 ºC in the past hundred years. This mostly reflects the response to global radiative forcings, which are dominated by anthropogenic forcing over the 20th Century. Regional modes of variability, such as the AMO, largely cancel out and make a very small contribution in the global mean SST changes.

Thus, we can conclude that both a natural cycle (the AMO) and anthropogenic forcing could have made roughly equally large contributions to the warming of the tropical Atlantic over the past decades, with an exact attribution impossible so far. The observed warming is likely the result of a combined effect: data strongly suggest that the AMO has been in a warming phase for the past two or three decades, and we also know that at the same time anthropogenic global warming is ongoing.

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