Tropical Cyclone Frequency and Climate Change

17 10 2017

Dale C. S. Destin |

This is a continuation of our series – Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change – (TCs; tropical depressions, tropical storms, hurricanes). In our previous blog in this series, we looked at Tropical Cyclone Intensity and Climate Change. In this blog, we will look at whether climate change is having an impact on TC frequency.

Hurricanes Katia (left), Irma (middle) and Jose (right)

Hurricanes Katia (left), Irma (middle) and Jose (right) – Sep 8, 2017

To date, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has produced 15 named storms – three more than the average or 25% more than usual. This has equalled the number of storms for last year. Meanwhile, there have been 10 hurricanes – four more than the average or 67% more than usual. This tied with 2010 for the most hurricanes since 2012. Further, there have been six major hurricanes – three more than average or 100% more than usual, the most since 2005.

Have TCs become more frequent?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is unlikely that TCs have become more frequent. Recall that the IPCC is the United Nations’ body task with assessing climate change.

Here is what the IPCC Assessment Report Five (AR5) actually says: “…recent assessments indicate that it is unlikely that annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have increased over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin…”. “No robust trends” exist.

So, having examined hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific research papers on the subject, the IPCC concluded that there has been change in the frequency of tropical cyclones.

One of the many papers cited by the IPCC, explains not only that there has been no change in the annual number of TCs but that there have been previous active Atlantic TC eras similar to the present. These active eras alternate with inactive eras; hence, in the not too distant future, the Atlantic will return to an inactive phase, perhaps similar to the 1970-1994 interval, when fewer storms occurred.

Further, although there has been no change in the number of  TCs over the past 100 years, research suggest that relative to about a thousand years ago, the annual number of TCs have decreased significantly. This is supported by Michael E. Mann et al., Michael J. Burn and Suzanne E. Palmer and others.

The increased greenhouse gases, the cause of climate change, substantially explain the observed SST increases over such places as the Atlantic and North West Pacific during the last 50 years. Added to this, are the apparent significant increases in TCs over this period. However, when the raw dataset is adjusted for short-lived TCs i.e. TCs lasting less than two days, a different picture emerges.


Green-shaded curves depict global mean temperature (HadCRUT3 data set) and August–October main development region (MDR; 10° N–20° N, 80° W–20° W) SST anomalies (HadISST data set). Blue-shaded curves represent unadjusted tropical storm counts. Red-shaded curves include time-dependent adjustments for missing storms based on ship-track density. The curve labelled ‘>2-day’ depicts storms with a duration greater than 2.0 days. Orange-shaded curves depict US landfalling tropical storms and hurricanes (no adjustments). Solid black lines are five-year means (1878–2008); dashed black lines are linear trends. Vertical axis ticks represent one standard deviation. Series normalized to unit standard deviation. Only the top three series have significant linear trends (p = 0.05). Source: Knutson et al. 2010

Before the satellite era – pre-1966, a number of storms went undetected due to the fact that they never made landfall and occurred in unfrequented parts of the Atlantic Ocean by ships – the only source of TC detection over open waters before there were satellites. Thus, when the raw data is adjusted for these missing cyclones, no long-term trend is detected.

The trend in major hurricanes is not (statistically) significance. Notwithstanding, the current trend is unreliable since studies have shown that the wind speeds for TCs, over the period 1851 to 1920, were systematically underestimated, a fact supported by paleoclimatology.

To a great extent, the numbers of TCs on record, pre-1966, are there only because they made landfall. Counting landfalling TCs is not a robust method for determining overall trend; nevertheless, the method shows no trend in various regions of the world.

Will TCs become more frequent in the future?

To this question, the IPCC says no! Here are the exact words from the IPCC AR5, “…it is likely that the global frequency…of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged…. However, “substantial increases in the frequency of the most intense cyclones and it is more likely than not that this increase will be larger than 10% in some basins”.

One of the main scientific papers used by the IPCC to come to this conclusion is one done by Knutson TR, McBride JL, Chan J, et al. They say that late in this century, there will be a 6 to 34% decrease in TC frequency. However, on the other hand, the same paper projects a 2 to 11% increase in TC winds; hence, by virtue of this, predicts an increased frequency of major hurricanes being more likely than not by year 2100. Notable TC researchers Kevin J.E. Walsh, John L. McBride, Philip J. Klotzbach et al. endorsed this conclusion.


General consensus assessment of the numerical experiments described in Supplementary Material Tables 14.SM.1 to 14.SM.4. All values represent expected percent change in the average over period 2081–2100 relative to 2000–2019, under an A1B-like scenario, based on expert judgement after subjective normalization of the model projections. Four metrics were considered: the percent change in (I) the total annual frequency of tropical storms, (II) the annual frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms, (III) the mean Lifetime Maximum Intensity (LMI; the maximum intensity achieved during a storm’s lifetime) and (IV) the precipitation rate within 200 km of storm centre at the time of LMI. For each metric plotted, the solid blue line is the best guess of the expected percent change, and the coloured bar provides the 67% (likely) confidence interval for this value (note that this interval ranges across –100% to +200% for the annual frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms in the North Atlantic). Where a metric is not plotted, there are insufficient data (denoted ‘insf.d.’) available to complete an assessment. A randomly drawn (and coloured) selection of historical storm tracks are underlain to identify regions of tropical cyclone activity. Source: IPCC AR5

One of the fallacious arguments being advanced for the increase in the frequency of TCs is increasingly warmer SSTs being caused by climate change. But quite obviously, warm SSTs are not the only parameters required for increased frequency. SSTs are very necessary but far from being sufficient for causing increased TC frequency.

A recently issued paper by Jeffrey P. Donnelly & Jonathan D. Woodruff indicates that such high SSTs as at present are not even necessary to support periods of frequent major hurricane activity. There have been eras with similar or higher number of TCs with significantly lower SSTs.

The Kevin J.E. Walsh et al. paper indicates the models used to simulate TCs, produce an increased frequency of TCs as temperature decreases and decreased frequency when temperature increases. Thus, increased SSTs do not necessarily mean increased TC frequency, by consensus, the opposite seems to be true.

Also required for increased number of TCs are conducive atmospheric conditions – unstable Atmosphere, moist middle Atmosphere and the overturning of the tropical Atmosphere caused by the Hadley cell. All three are needed for the formation of tropical disturbances – the precursors of TCs. However, fortunate for us, climate change is causing these things to go in the negative direction; hence, the projected decrease in the frequency of TCs by the end of this century.

Based on the IPCC and the vast majority of the TC researchers, TC frequency has not changed over the last century. By the preponderance of research papers, climate change has NOT caused TCs to become more frequent. However, by late this century the frequency of TCs is projected to decrease or perhaps remain unchanged relative to present. However, the number of major hurricanes is more likely than not to increase late in the current century. This is the conclusion of the IPCC AR5 – we either accept the full report or none at all. And if we accept all of it, we would not be blaming current TC and hurricane frequencies on climate change, at this time.

Our next blog in this series will look at the impact, if any, of climate change on tropical cyclone rainfall.



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