Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam and Climate Change

Guest post by Kerry Emanuel

In the past 16 months, two exceptionally intense tropical cyclones, Haiyan and Pam, have struck the western Pacific with devastating effect. Haiyan may have had the highest wind speeds of any tropical cyclone on record, but we will never know for sure because we do a poor job estimating the intensity of storms that are not surveyed by aircraft. (Currently, only North Atlantic tropical cyclones are routinely reconnoitered by aircraft, and only if they threaten populated regions within a few days.) Pam’s analyzed intensity puts it within 10 knots of the most intense storms on record in the South Pacific, but here again this is within the error bars of satellite-derived intensity estimates.


Pam’s high intensity and terrible impact on Vanuatu have invariably raised the question of the possible effect of global warming on its characteristics. For example, Vanuatu’s President Baldwin Lonsdale blamed the disaster partly on climate change. Just as predictable is the backlash to the effect that no single event can be attributed to climate variations of any kind. What can we say about the effects of climate change on South Pacific tropical cyclones?

We can begin by looking at the record of tropical cyclones in that region. Unfortunately, for the reasons discussed above, these records are poor and those that exist only go back to about 1980, though there are longer records of storms making landfall in Australia. Perhaps the best existing analysis of South Pacific tropical cyclones is that of Kossin et al. (2013), who homogenized the satellite data record from 1982 to 2009 to create a temporally consistent record, and compared that to the problematic historical data base of storms over the world. While the historical data in the South Pacific region show a highly significant upward trend in the incidence of high intensity events, the satellite-based record shows a less prominent and significant trend of 2.5 m/s per decade with a p value of 0.09. Thus there is some evidence of a trend toward higher intensity of high category tropical cyclones in the South Pacific over the period 1982-2009, but it is not conclusive and in any event spans a limited time interval.

We can also look at trends in important environmental factors that are known to influence tropical cyclones. The usual suspect among these is sea surface temperature (SST) and there has been much talk about the elevated SST’s in the region where Pam developed. But SST by itself is not the main factor in the existing theory for the upper bound on tropical cyclone intensity, known as the potential intensity; instead, the potential intensity depends more nearly in the difference between SST and a measure of the bulk temperature of the troposphere as well as the temperature of the tropopause. An expression of the potential intensity, measured in maximum possible wind speed, is


where Vp is the potential maximum wind speed, Ts is the surface temperature, Tt is the tropopause temperature, hs* is the saturation moist static energy of the sea surface, and h* is the saturation moist static energy of the free troposphere, which is nearly uniform with height if the lapse rate is moist adiabatic. In the deep tropics, temperature is nearly uniform on pressure surfaces because there is not enough Coriolis acceleration to balance strong pressure gradients, thus h*, which is just a function of pressure and temperature, is horizontally as well as vertically uniform in the free troposphere. Therefore, the potential intensity depends mostly on variations of SST (which controls hs*) for climate variations that do not affect the mean temperature of the troposphere. But global warming very definitely does affect the temperature of the tropical free troposphere, so it is not possible to conclude, as alas many have, that increasing SST per se means increasing tropical cyclone intensity (though it usually does signify more TC-related rain).

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