On estimates of historical North Atlantic tropical cyclone activity

Gabriel A. Vecchi, Thomas R. Knutson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

149 Scopus citations

Abstract

In this study, an estimate of the expected number of Atlantic tropical cyclones (TCs) that were missed by the observing system in the presatellite era (between 1878 and 1965) is developed. The significance of trends in both number and duration since 1878 is assessed and these results are related to estimated changes in sea surface temperature (SST) over the "main development region" ("MDR"). The sensitivity of the estimate of missed TCs to underlying assumptions is examined. According to the base case adjustment used in this study, the annual number of TCs has exhibited multidecadal variability that has strongly covaried with multidecadal variations in MDR SST, as has been noted previously. However, the linear trend in TC counts (1878-2006) is notably smaller than the linear trend in MDR SST, when both time series are normalized to have the same variance in their 5-yr running mean series. Using the base case adjustment for missed TCs leads to an 1878-2006 trend in the number of TCs that is weakly positive, though not statistically significant, with p ∼0.2. The estimated trend for 1900-2006 is highly +∼4.2 storms century-1) according to the results of this study. The 1900-2006 trend is strongly influenced by a minimum in 1910-30, perhaps artificially enhancing significance, whereas the 1878-2006 trend depends critically on high values in the late 1800s, where uncertainties are larger than during the 1900s. The trend in average TC duration (1878-2006) is negative and highly significant. Thus, the evidence for a significant increase in Atlantic storm activity over the most recent 125 yr is mixed, even though MDR SST has warmed significantly. The decreasing duration result is unexpected and merits additional exploration; duration statistics are more uncertain than those of storm counts. As TC formation, development, and track depend on a number of environmental factors, of which regional SST is only one, much work remains to be done to clarify the relationship between anthropogenic climate warming, the large-scale tropical environment, and Atlantic TC activity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3580-3600
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Climate
Volume21
Issue number14
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 15 2008
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science

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