Skip to comments.Global Warming and Hurricanes: Still No Connection
Posted on 09/16/2005 9:45:17 AM PDT by Ernest_at_the_Beach
A scientific team led by Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology today published findings in Science magazine. The team claimed to have found evidence in the historical record of both more tropical cyclones, such as Hurricane Katrina, but also a higher percentage of more intense ones.
This follows on the heels of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kerry Emanual proclaiming in the Aug. 4 on-line edition of Nature magazine that he had found evidence that global warming in the last 30 years was producing more intense cyclones.
The conclusion many draw from papers such as these is that anthropogenic global warming from the burning of fossil fuels by humans is causing more lethal storms. A closer look, though, reveals not human actions but rather natural cycles are the primary cause.
Much has already been written concerning the findings of Emanuel, and their potential shortcomings, both by myself and others. So, in this article, let's focus on the results this week in Science.
Webster and colleagues analyzed the occurrence of tropical systems of all strengths across the principal regions of the world's oceans where they form -- the North Atlantic, the Eastern Pacific, the Western Pacific, the Southwestern Pacific, and the North and South Indian Ocean basins. They limited their analysis to the period since 1970 -- the time since satellites were first used to monitor tropical cyclone development. During this same period, the sea surface temperature (SST) in these basins increased by about 0.5ºC (or just under 1ºF). The researchers sought to determine whether there were any changes in the patterns of hurricanes that could be related to the warmer SSTs.
They found that the total number of tropical storms (tropical cyclones with maximum winds less than 75 mph) and hurricanes (tropical cyclones with winds equal to or exceeding 75mph) varies a bit from year to year, but over the last 30 years, there has been no trend towards either more or fewer storms. This is interesting because in the North Atlantic Ocean (the primary basin where hurricanes form that effect the United States), storms have become much more frequent since 1995. In other parts of the world, however, such as in the Western and Eastern Pacific, and in the Southern Hemisphere oceans, tropical cyclone frequency has declined since the early 1990s. Such variable behavior in the trends of storm frequency from around the world led the researchers to conclude that:
In summary, careful analysis of global hurricane data shows that, against a background of increasing SST, no global trend has yet emerged in the number of tropical storms and hurricanes. Only one region, the North Atlantic, shows a statistically significant increase, which commenced in 1995. However, a simple attribution of the increase in numbers of storms to a warming SST environment is not supported, because of the lack of a comparable correlation in other ocean basins where SST is also increasing.
But Webster and colleagues did not limit themselves only to the investigation of tropical cyclone frequency. They also examined how tropical cyclone intensity may have changed. Here they found a different result. They report that, globally, since 1970, the annual number of weak (category 1) hurricanes has declined a bit, the number of moderate (categories 2 and 3) hurricanes has fluctuated but the average has remained about the same, and the number of severe (categories 4 and 5) has increased. This same pattern of change is also evident in the annual percentage of the storm types -- in the early 1970s, category 1 storms made up about 45% of all hurricanes, category 2 and 3 storms contributed another 40% and the strong category 4 and 5 storms made up the remaining 15%. By the end of the study period (the early 2000s) the annual contributions were about equal. However, despite this apparent trend towards more intense hurricanes, they found that the highest wind speed observed in the most intense storms has remained remarkably constant. In other words, they found that the strongest storms are not getting stronger, but that there has been a tendency for more of them.
Figure 1 shows Webster et al.'s results.
Figure 1. (A) the total number of category 1 storms (blue curve), the sum of categories 2 and 3 (green), and the sum of categories 4 and 5 (red) in 5-year periods. The black curve is the maximum wind speed observed globally. (B) Same as (A), except that the numbers are presented as a percentage of the total annual storm count.
These results led the researchers to conclude:
We conclude that global data indicate a 30-year trend toward more frequent intense tropical cyclones. This trend is not inconsistent with recent climate model simulations that a doubling of CO2 may increase the frequency of the most intense cyclones, although attribution of the 30-year trends to global warming would require a longer global data record and, especially a deeper understanding of the role of hurricanes in the general circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, even in the present climate state.
The caveat at the end has implications that likely supercede any attempted attribution of the recent behavior of tropical cyclones to anthropogenic global warming. For example, while Webster et al. chose to begin their analysis in 1970, citing the best available global coverage of hurricanes as their justification, it turns out that in the North Atlantic basin, a full coverage of hurricanes began in the mid to late 1940s when hurricane hunter aircrafts were first used -- this is a full 25 years before satellite monitoring became available. Thus, in the Atlantic, we can peek back a little further to see how the trend since the 1970s fits into a longer-term perspective.
Using data on Atlantic basin tropical cyclones from the National Hurricane Center, the Webster analysis in Figure 1 can be recreated using data that began in 1945. The results for the North Atlantic basin are depicted in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Same as Figure 1, except for the analysis is for only the North Atlantic basin and begins in 1945.
The region shaded in gray is the data from the period prior to that analyzed by Webster's group. Note that the behavior since 1970 (unshaded portion) is pretty much just as Webster et al. had found (compare with Figure 1) -- declines in the weaker category 1 storms and increases in the numbers and percentages of the strong category 4 and 5 storms. However, in the 25 years prior to 1970, just the opposite occurred -- the number and percentage of strong hurricanes declined while weak storms became more common. When taken as a whole, the pattern appears to be better characterized as being dominated by active and inactive periods that oscillate through time, rather than being one that indicates a temporal trend. This characterization is one that does not fit so well with the concept that hurricanes are becoming more intense because of increases in atmospheric CO2.
While the impacts of the currently active hurricane period are being felt especially hard in the United States, there remains no scientific proof that human contributions to an enhanced greenhouse effect are the root cause.
Emanuel, K., 2005. Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years. Nature, posted on-line August 4, 2005, doi:10.1038:nature3906
Webster P., et al., 2005. Changes in tropical cyclone number, duration, and intensity in a warming environment. Science, 309, 1844-1846.
The conclusion many draw from papers such as these is that anthropogenic global warming from the burning of fossil fuels by humans is causing more lethal storms.
A closer look, though, reveals not human actions but rather natural cycles are the primary cause.
Sadly, we will see less and less of the National Science publications carrying articles like this as politics overwhelms the concept of scientific inquiry.
Al Gore, among other nutjobs, is deeply disappointed.
Global warming causes everything.
That really is the enviro belief.
Who are you going to believe? These Guys? or Robert Kennedy Jr.
Anyone remember the next ice age stuff, early 70's?
Someone have an email address to send this to Robert Kennedy, Al Gore, Arianna Huffington??
This can't be true. I just read an article this morning by a knight ridder enviro journalist saying that Katrina is absolutely the work of global warming! :)
Actually, the headline claimed that.
Whereas the body of the article said there was no conclusive evidence for such.
Slashdot's linking here from their home page! Let's see how good Jim's servers and code are... I think it'll survive.
My position is two fold.
First, while hurricanes do need hot water to form, the number and severity of the storms is not well correlated to the ocean temperature. (less than .2) In fact the ocean temp has not shown a rise in temperature correlated to the rise in the concentration of CO2. An article in Scientific American in 2004 or early 2005 concluded that the oceans will act as a "sink" for rising temperature, even preventing the atmosphere from rising for well into the next 100 years. This fact, if true is both good and bad, because it means the verdict on warming or not will have to wait a long time. If it then IS a warming phenomena caused by humans, we may very well be too far along in it to stop the consequences of rising ocean water and changing agriculture climates.
The article quote you provided does not mention the lack of numerical correlation of storms to water and air temperature, it says in fact that since CO2 concentration has more than doubled the storms have increased in intensity. It sounds like the article has concluded that there is a relationship. Referring to a thirty year cycle that resulted in fewer and less severe storms for the past 15 years, the article would have us believe that it is no longer a cycle but after this next 15 years will continue to increase. To be sure the article does mention in passing that a longer time line is needed, (otherwise the lack of correlation will mean that we can't draw a conclusion about storms and their frequency that ties them to the global warming theory.)
BTW, as I understand it, the thirty year cycle is for storms originating in the south Atlantic. Storm counts world wide seem more or less to be constant.
The second point is that Scientific American runs one article (like the one I mentioned) that seems pretty free of bias and then runs ten articles that start with the assumption that warming is running out of control and makes "scientific" predictions of the consequences. The fact that a reputable publication would fall in so completely with the warming theory and its non free market agenda means that soon you and I will have to dig very deeply to find actual science amid the junk.
As far as the article from Science, I can agree with you that it is not a lie. But it also is leaning to support the global warming theory which at this time is only a theory.
I dislike 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' ideas too - seeing various hairdo-types on TV claiming bluntly that 'it's due to global warming' is irritating, as it mis-states evidence. Obviously a long-term rise in oceanic surface temperature would lead to more heat transfer to the atmosphere via cyclonic weather systems. That THIS increase in hurricanes over 10-15 years ago is strongly related to anthopogenic causes is just not clear in any way to me. But I'm not a close follower of current research.
As to Scientific American being a serious scientific journal, it's not. The article in Science on the other hand, said their perceived trend in increased storm power was 'not inconsistent' which is about as weak a starement as you can make - they don't claim there's clear evidence linking the two, just that it would fit the currently accepted model. That's responsible opinion, as I see it.