Tropical cyclone history – part II: Paleotempestology still in its infancy

Guest Commentary from Urs Neu

While analyzing tropical cyclone records is difficult enough (see ‘Tropical cylone history – part I’), it is even more challenging to reliably estimate hurricane activity back in time. Recently, Nature published an attempt to reconstruct past major hurricane activity back to 1730 (Nyberg et al. 2007). The authors concluded that the phase of enhanced hurricane activity since 1995 is not unusual compared to other periods of high hurricane activity in the record and thus appears to represent a recovery to normal hurricane activity. The paper was advertised in a press release put out by Nature and received broad media attention.

Although the approach outlined by the authors is interesting, the study contains in my view a number of problems, as outlined in a comment published in Nature today (Neu 2008):

The authors use a couple of coral records and a marine sediment core from the Caribbean to reconstruct first wind shear and then major hurricane activity in the tropical Atlantic. First they find a good correlation of their proxy records to wind shear measurements in the mean hurricane development region (MDR). There are two interesting features here: the coral proxies show a negative correlation to wind shear over the MDR, but a positive correlation north of it. Thus, in relation to hurricane activity there is an opposite effect of wind shear in different regions (Fig. 2 of Nyberg et al.). We’ll come back to that later. The sediment proxy shows a positive correlation to wind shear over the MDR and no correlation north of it. Thus, since the two proxy records are correlated to wind shear in the opposite direction, one would expect that the proxies show opposite patterns and trends. This is more or less true for the period 1950-1990 used to calibrate (or ‘train’) the statistical model. However, for the preceding 230 years, the long-term trend is the same for both proxies. This clearly indicates, that at least one of the proxies has a wrong long-term trend, because they show an opposite long-term trend of wind shear. Thus the long-term trend of a reconstruction using both proxies does not seem very reliable. Nyberg et al. did not comment on this basic problem in their reply (Nyberg et al. 2008).

For the reconstruction of past major hurricane activity they use these two proxies again together with a proxy for SSTs. Besides the problem of two proxies with opposite long-term trend, the coral proxy has, as mentioned, an opposite correlation to wind shear within and outside the MDR. Since 1944 about 50% of major Atlantic hurricanes have reached major hurricane strength only outside the area of positive correlation (in the area north of 20ºN between 50 to 75ºW and north of 25ºN outside this section), i.e. in an area with no or an inverse correlation to the proxies. Since wind shear seems to be high in this area at times when it is low in the MDR, the relation of major Atlantic hurricane frequency to the coral proxy does not seem so evident from physical considerations. Moreover, the fraction of major hurricanes observed outside the MDR varies with time (Figure 1) and might have changed over the last decade, which further complicates the relationship.

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