The Heat Is Online

New Research Attributes Stronger Hurricanes to Warming

Experts say global warming is causing stronger hurricanes

The Associated Press, Sept. 15, 2005


WASHINGTON - The number of hurricanes in the most powerful categories - like Katrina and Andrew - has increased sharply over the past few decades, according to a new analysis sure to stir debate over whether global warming is worsening these deadly storms.


While studies have not found an overall increase in tropical systems worldwide, the number of storms reaching categories 4 and 5 grew from about 11 per year in the 1970s to 18 per year since 1990, according to a report in Friday's issue of the journal Science.


Peter J. Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology said it's the warm water vapor from the oceans that drives tropical storms, and as the water gets warmer the amount of evaporation increases, providing more fuel for the tempests. Between 1970 and 2004 the average sea surface temperature in the tropics rose nearly 1°F.


Co-author Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research said the researchers can't say rising sea-surface temperatures caused Hurricane Katrina. But their study shows the potential for more Katrina-like events to occur, he said.


Katrina was a category 5 storm at sea and was category 4 when it made landfall. The increase in storms they found is for category 4 and 5. Category 4 storms have wind speeds of 131 mph to 155 mph and Category 5 is for storms with sustained winds of 156 mph and over. 


Co-author Judith Curry of Georgia Tech said the team is confident that the measured increase in sea surface temperatures is associated with global warming, adding that the increase in category 4 and 5 storms "certainly has an element that global warming is contributing to."


There is a natural variability of the climate and some would interpret the changing number of storms to be part of that variability, Holland said. But the variability in the past has been over 10-year periods, and this is sustained over 30 years.


Webster added that sea surface temperatures "are rising everywhere in the tropics and that is not connected to any natural variability we know."


In their analysis of hurricanes - known as typhoons or cyclones in other parts of the world - the researchers counted 16 category 4 and 5 storms in the Atlantic-Caribbean-Gulf of Mexico in 1975-1989. This increased to 25 in the 1990-2004 period.


In the eastern Pacific the increase was from 36 to 49 storms and it went from 85 to 116 in the western Pacific. In the southwest Pacific the increase was from 10 to 22 powerful storms, while the total went from one to seven in the north Indian Ocean and from 23 to 50 in the south Indian Ocean.


Kerry Emanuel, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported in August in the journal Nature that hurricanes in both the Atlantic and Pacific have increased in duration and intensity since the 1970s.


While the new study looks at the problem differently, "we are clearly seeing the same signal in the data," Emanuel said.


But other researchers were cautious.


Christopher Landsea, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division in Miami, questioned the data showing an increase in major storms, saying the estimates of the wind speed in storms in the 1970s may not be accurate.


The study looked at storms worldwide, and "for most of the world there was no way to determine objectively what the winds were in 1970," he said. The techniques used today were invented later and infrared satellite studies weren't available until the 1980s, Landsea said.


The Atlantic-Caribbean-Gulf of Mexico region is the best monitored in the world and that region had the smallest increase, he noted.  


"This really highlights the need to go back and get all the original data ... and reanalyze the storms with today's techniques," Landsea said in a telephone interview. "These are billion dollar questions and we need to better answer them."


Holland agreed there have been changes in the observing system since the 1970s but noted the increase has been steady over the period, "it didn't just kick in when the new measurement methods kicked in."


The fact that the trend is smaller in the Atlantic basin is beside the point, he added, because it has gone up as there well. 


"The end result is that there is no doubt that there is a substantial increase here," Holland said.


Roger Pielke, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, said the report "reinforces the view that we should pay even greater attention to preparing for the inevitability

of future intense hurricanes striking vulnerable locations around the world.


In the context of ever-growing coastal development, the costs of hurricanes are going to continue to escalate."


Neither Emanuel, Landsea nor Pielke was part of Webster's research team. Webster's research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.


'Warming link' to big hurricanes, Sept. 15, 2005


Records for the past 35 years show that hurricanes have got stronger in recent times, according to a global study.


This fits with mounting evidence which suggests the biggest storms around the world - hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones - are intensifying.

Some US scientists say that greenhouse warming may be driving the most severe events, such as Katrina, although more research is needed to be sure.


Their assessment of hurricane activity is published in the journal Science.

The idea that global warming might have an impact makes sense in theory, at least, since tropical storms need warm ocean water to build up strength.


But most scientists believe there is currently insufficient evidence to make such a claim, partly because of the lack of reliable long-term data.


Satellite data


Now, scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, have analysed global tropical cyclone statistics since satellite records began.



They found that there has been a sharp rise in the number of category 4 and 5 tropical cyclones - the most intense hurricanes that cause most of the damage on landfall - over this time period.


Between 1975 and 1989, there were 171 severe hurricanes but the number rose to 269 between 1990 and 2004.


The author of the study, Dr Peter Webster, told the BBC News website: "What I think we can say is that the increase in intensity is probably accounted for by the increase in sea surface temperature and I think probably the sea surface temperature increase is a manifestation of global warming."


Natural variation


The debate is likely to continue, however, as some scientists argue that the present hurricane surge is part of a 60 to 70-year cycle linked to natural effects.


They believe climate change due to human activity will not significantly affect hurricanes and that damage caused by increased development along coastlines is a bigger factor.


Julian Heming, hurricane expert at the Met Office in Exeter, UK, says that a longer term record is needed to establish a firm link between global warming and more powerful hurricanes.


He said: "I would say that this paper corroborates the widely held view in the scientific community that whilst global warming may not be having any impact on the frequency of tropical cyclones or even the proportion which reach hurricane strength, it may have an impact on the small proportion of tropical cyclones which attain the highest strength (category 4 and 5)."