Tropical Cyclones workshop

One of the nice things about a being a scientist is that you can sometimes go to workshops and meetings and actually hear something new now and again. At the well-timed Tropical Cyclones and Climate Workshop at Columbia a week or so ago, I got a chance to sit in and listen to Emanuel, Landsea, Knutson and Bell talking about their recent work, but I also got to hear some new voices (and issues) in the discussion. It was all pretty enlightening even if it didn’t end up in complete reconciliation of the different views.

I won’t bother recapping the main points of contention (you can read about them here and here), but instead I’ll just mention a few salient points that struck me as interesting.

Data quality: No-one was happy with the current state of the historical Tropical Cyclone (TC) databases, and some questions were even raised (by Landsea) about the quality of the satellite-era record (though no evidence was presented that demonstrated a real problem). However, no-one questioned the recent rise in hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

Modelling: Though it often seems as if the Knutson and Tuleya paper is the only relevant modelling study, there were quite a few new studies talked about that will be interesting – a new Japanese study that actually has high enough resolution to simulate (reasonable?) TCs, season-by-season studies of hurricanes using the GFDL hurricane model and boundary conditions from the reanalyses. Though it seems like a good idea, no-one has yet started using the IPCC AR4 model runs (with all the relevant 20th C forcings) to see if there is any support for a forced signal over the instrumental period…

Potential Intensity theory: This is the theoretical framework that most of this discussion falls into and a number of relevant points were made by Emanuel and others. I should point out that these points were simply new to me (because this isn’t my field) but are worth highlighting for the other interested amateurs out there.

  • PI theory relates the maximum potential intensity that a hurricane could reach given the temperature gradient from surface to tropopause (the outflow) and the surface heat flux.
  • The key ‘outflow’ temperature is not in the ‘mid-tropopshere’ but at the tropopause, and so the surface to mid-troposphere moist static stability (the lower tropospheric lapse rate) is not actually part of the theory and (apparently) hasn’t been shown to be a particularly important variable for intensity in observations.
  • tropopause temperatures can be influenced by more than just greenhouse temperatures – volcanic eruptions and ozone depletion came up as additional factors
  • the surface heat flux term is where the link to SST comes in, but depending on what is actually changing, there could be very different correlation between the heat flux and SST. For instance a change in radiative effects would produce a different SST-heatflux correlation than changes due to ocean circulation. Thus there is no unique theoretical relationship between SST and hurricane intensity, you really need to know what the real underlying change is. So looking at the results from imposed SST changes in an atmospheric model is not necessarily a useful analog for the intensity/SST link seen in the late 20th Century.

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