May 17, 2006

Hurricane Debate Rages On

Filed under: Hurricanes

Two new hurricane/climate change articles just hit the street, in the form of a back-and- forth discussion in the May 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society (BAMS). While both agree that our coastal population continues to become more vulnerable to the impacts of tropical cyclones, the papers cite dramatically different causes.

Roger Pielke Jr., Christopher Landsea, Max Mayfield, Jim Laver, and Richard Pasch maintain that the culprit is the massive build-up of population and wealth along America’s Gulf and Atlantic shorelines, as well as in other vulnerable lowlands around the world.

Richard Anthes, Robert Corell, Greg Holland, James Hurrell, Michael McCracken and Kevin Trenberth admit that changing population demographics are important, but also contend that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols also play leading roles. They state

[T]he broad agreement between theoretical and modeling studies, together with the strong evidence from observational analysis, suggests that not only will tropical cyclone intensity increase with anthropogenic warming, but that this process has already commenced.

Pielke Jr., et al. respond:

Anthes et al. (2006) present three criticisms of our [2005] paper. Once criticism is that Pielke et al. (2005) “leaves the impression that there is no significant connection between recent climate change caused by human activities and hurricane characteristics and impacts.” If by “significant” they mean either (a) presence in the peer-reviewed literature or (b) discernible in the observed economic impacts, then this is indeed an accurate reading. Anthes et al. (2006) provide no data, analyses, or references that directly connect observed hurricane characteristics and impacts to anthropogenic climate change.

Pielke Jr. et al. are right on the money with this and Anthes et al. are a ways off—especially in the Atlantic basin. In fact, the peer-reviewed literature that directly looks at the behavior of tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic and compares that with the behavior of the of other aspects of the tropical environment that are known to be important in tropical cyclone intensification (e.g., Michaels et al., 2006; Hoyos et al., 2006) indicates that the picture is very complex and far from being completely understood (see here and here for further discussion about this). We, as scientists, are not close to establishing that 1) sea-surface temperature (SST) changes are solely responsible for the observed increase in intensity, or that 2) the observed SST increases are solely related to increasing greenhouse gases, or that 3) the observed changes are consistent with climate model projections. Undoubtedly, raising SSTs will impact tropical cyclone development in some way, but when, if ever, that impact raises above the level of natural “noise” such that it becomes detectable is far from being determined. It is definitely not there now.


Anthes, R.A., et al., 2006. Hurricanes and global warming—Potential linkages and consequences. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 87, 623-628.

Hoyos, C.D., et al., 2006. Deconvolution of the factors contributing to the increase in global hurricane intensity. SciencExpress, March 16, 2006.

Michaels, P.J. et a.l, 2006. Sea-surface temperatures and tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin. Geophysical Research Letters, 33, doi:10.1029/2006GL025757.

Pielke Jr., R. A., et al., 2005. Hurricanes and global warming. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 86, 1571-1575.

Pielke Jr., R. A., et al., 2006. Reply to “Hurricanes and Global Warming—Potential Linkages and Consequences”. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 87,628-631.

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