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Improving the Tropical Cyclone Climate Record

Filed under: — gavin @ 16 December 2012

Guest Commentary by Christopher Hennon (UNC Asheville)

Get involved in a new citizen science project at

The poor quality of the tropical cyclone (TC) data record provides severe constraints on the ability of climate scientists to: a) determine to what degree TCs have responded to shifts in climate, b) evaluate theories on how TCs will respond to climate change in the future. The root cause for the poor data is the severity of the TC conditions (e.g. high wind, rough seas) and the remoteness of these storms – the vast majority of which form and remain well away from most observing networks. Thus, most TCs are not observed directly and those that are (with buoys, aircraft reconnaissance, ships) are often not sampled sufficiently (see the IBTrACS, (Knapp et al., 2010)).

This leaves tropical cyclone forecasters, who are ultimately responsible for recording TC tracks and intensities (i.e. maximum wind speeds), with a challenging problem. Fortunately, there is a tool called the Dvorak Technique which allows forecasters to make a reasonable determination of the TC intensity by simply analyzing a single infrared or visible satellite image, which is almost always available Velden et al., 2006). The technique calls for the analyst to determine the center location of the system, the cloud pattern type, the degree of organization of the pattern, and the intensity trend. A maximum surface wind speed is determined after the application of a number of rules and constraints.

Hurricane Gay (1992)The Dvorak Technique has been used for many years at all global tropical cyclone forecast centers and has been shown in many cases to yield a good estimate of maximum TC wind speed, when applied properly (Knaff et al., 2010). However, there is a level of analyst subjectivity inherent in the procedure; the cloud patterns are not always clear, it is sometimes difficult to accurately determine the storm center and the rules and constraints have been interpreted and applied differently across agencies. This introduces heterogeneity in the global TC record since the Dvorak Technique is usually the only available tool for assessing the maximum wind speed.

There has been recent work to eliminate the human element in the Dvorak Technique by automating the procedure. The Advanced Dvorak Technique (ADT) uses objective storm center and cloud pattern schemes to remove the subjectivity (Olander and Velden, 2007). All other classification rules and constraints are then applied and combined with additional statistical information to produce automated intensity estimates. Although the ADT skill is comparable to experienced human Dvorak analysts, large errors can occur if the scene type is not identified properly.

A new crowd sourcing project, called Cyclone Center, embraces the human element by enabling the public to perform a simplified version of the Dvorak Technique to analyze historical global tropical cyclone (TC) intensities (Hennon, 2012). Cyclone Center’s primary goal is to resolve discrepancies in the recent global TC record arising principally from inconsistent development of tropical cyclone intensity data. The Cyclone Center technique standardizes the classification procedure by condensing the Dvorak Technique to a few simple questions that can be answered by global, nonprofessional users.

One of the main advantages of this approach is the inclusion of thousands of users, instead of the 1-3 who would normally classify a TC image. This allows the computation of measures of uncertainty in addition to a mean intensity. Nearly 300,000 images, encompassing all global TCs that formed from 1978-2009, will be classified 30 times each – a feat that would take a dedicated team of twenty Dvorak-trained experts about 12 years to complete. Citizen scientists have already performed over 100,000 classifications since the project launch in September. Once the project is complete, a new dataset of global TC tracks and intensities will be made available to the community to contribute to our efforts to provide the best possible TC data record.

Interested readers are encouraged to learn more about and participate in the project at the website (there are some FAQ on the project blog). The CycloneCenter project is a collaboration between the Citizen Science Alliance, NOAA National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), University of North Carolina at Asheville, and the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites (CICS) – North Carolina.


  1. K.R. Knapp, M.C. Kruk, D.H. Levinson, H.J. Diamond, and C.J. Neumann, "The International Best Track Archive for Climate Stewardship (IBTrACS)", Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 91, pp. 363-376, 2010.
  2. C. Velden, B. Harper, F. Wells, J.L. Beven, R. Zehr, T. Olander, M. Mayfield, C. Guard, M. Lander, R. Edson, L. Avila, A. Burton, M. Turk, A. Kikuchi, A. Christian, P. Caroff, and P. McCrone, "The Dvorak Tropical Cyclone Intensity Estimation Technique: A Satellite-Based Method that Has Endured for over 30 Years", Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 87, pp. 1195-1210, 2006.
  3. J.A. Knaff, D.P. Brown, J. Courtney, G.M. Gallina, and J.L. Beven, "An Evaluation of Dvorak Technique–Based Tropical Cyclone Intensity Estimates", Wea. Forecasting, vol. 25, pp. 1362-1379, 2010.
  4. T.L. Olander, and C.S. Velden, "The Advanced Dvorak Technique: Continued Development of an Objective Scheme to Estimate Tropical Cyclone Intensity Using Geostationary Infrared Satellite Imagery", Wea. Forecasting, vol. 22, pp. 287-298, 2007.
  5. C.C. Hennon, "Citizen scientists analyzing tropical cyclone intensities", Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, vol. 93, pp. 385, 2012.

Short term trends: Another proxy fight

Filed under: — gavin @ 1 November 2012

One might assume that people would be happy that the latest version of the Hadley Centre and CRU combined temperature index is now being updated on a monthly basis. The improvements over the previous version in terms of coverage and error estimates is substantial. One might think that these advances – albeit incremental – would at least get mentioned in a story that used the new data set. Of course, one would not be taking into account the monumental capacity for some journalists and the outlets they work for to make up stories whenever it suits them. But all of the kerfuffle over the Mail story and the endless discussions over short and long term temperature trends hides what people are actually arguing about – what is likely to happen in the future, rather than what has happened in the past.

The fundamental point I will try and make here is that, given a noisy temperature record, many different statements can be true at the same time, but very few of them are informative about future trends. Thus vehemence of arguments about the past trends is in large part an unacknowledged proxy argument about the future.

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Far out in North Carolina

Filed under: — stefan @ 24 June 2012

The extensive salt marshes on the Outer Banks of Carolina offer ideal conditions for unravelling the mysteries of sea level change during past centuries. Here is a short report from our field work there – plus some comments on strange North Carolina politics as well as two related new papers published today in Nature Climate Change.

The Outer Banks of Carolina are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion and sea-level rise, partly because the land is subsiding and the banks are naturally moving landward. On the ocean front, land is continually being lost.
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Fresh hockey sticks from the Southern Hemisphere

In the Northern Hemisphere, the late 20th / early 21st century has been the hottest time period in the last 400 years at very high confidence, and likely in the last 1000 – 2000 years (or more). It has been unclear whether this is also true in the Southern Hemisphere. Three studies out this week shed considerable new light on this question. This post provides just brief summaries; we’ll have more to say about these studies in the coming weeks. More »

HadCRUT4 data now available

Filed under: — gavin @ 16 April 2012

Just a quick note to point out that the HadCRUT4 data are now fully available for download. Feel free to discuss (or point to) any analyses you’d like to see done in the comments, and perhaps we’ll update this post with the more interesting ones.

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