Observational evidence for oceanic controls on hurricane intensity

Ian D. Lloyd, Gabriel A. Vecchi

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152 Scopus citations


The influence of oceanic changes on tropical cyclone activity is investigated using observational estimates of sea surface temperature (SST), air-sea fluxes, and ocean subsurface thermal structure during the period 1998-2007. SST conditions are examined before, during, and after the passage of tropical cyclones, through Lagrangian composites along cyclone tracks across all ocean basins, with particular focus on the North Atlantic. The influence of translation speed is explored by separating tropical cyclones according to the translation speed divided by the Coriolis parameter. On average for tropical cyclones up to category 2, SST cooling becomes larger as cyclone intensity increases, peaking at 1.8 K in the North Atlantic. Beyond category 2 hurricanes, however, the cooling no longer follows an increasing monotonic relationship with intensity. In the North Atlantic, the cooling for stronger hurricanes decreases, while in other ocean basins the cyclone-induced cooling does not significantly differ from category 2 to category 5 tropical cyclones, with the exception of the South Pacific. Since the SST response is nonmonotonic, with stronger cyclones producing more cooling up to category 2, but producing less or approximately equal cooling for categories 3-5, the observations indicate that oceanic feedbacks can inhibit intensification of cyclones. This result implies that large-scale oceanic conditions are a control on tropical cyclone intensity, since they control oceanic sensitivity to atmospheric forcing. Ocean subsurface thermal data provide additional support for this dependence, showing weaker upper-ocean stratification for stronger tropical cyclones. Intensification is suppressed by strong ocean stratification since it favors large SST cooling, but the ability of tropical cyclones to intensify is less inhibited when stratification is weak and cyclone-induced SST cooling is small. Thus, after accounting for tropical cyclone translation speeds and latitudes, it is argued that reduced cooling under extreme tropical cyclones is the manifestation of the impact of oceanic conditions on the ability of tropical cyclones to intensify.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1138-1153
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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