Tropical cyclones and climate change

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1970 Bhola cyclone before landfall. It became the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded with more than 300,000 casualties. November 1970 Bhola Cyclone Repair.jpg
1970 Bhola cyclone before landfall. It became the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded with more than 300,000 casualties.

Due to climate change, tropical cyclones are likely to increase in intensity, cause increased rainfall, and have larger storm surges, but might also lead to fewer of them globally. Tropical cyclones may also intensify more rapidly, and occur at higher latitudes. These changes are driven by rising sea temperatures and increased maximum water vapour content of the atmosphere as the air heats up. The 2018 U.S. National Climate Change Assessment reported that "increases in greenhouse gases and decrease in air pollution have contributed to increases in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1970". [1]


Tropical cyclones are known as hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and the northeastern Pacific Ocean, typhoons in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, and cyclones in the southern Pacific or the Indian Ocean. [2] Fundamentally, they are all the same type of storm.


A tropical cyclone is a rapidly rotating storm system characterized by a low-pressure center, a closed low-level atmospheric circulation,

Global ocean heat content in the top 700 m of the ocean. Heat content55-07.png
Global ocean heat content in the top 700 m of the ocean.

strong winds and a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms that produce heavy rain or squalls. The majority of these systems form each year in one of seven tropical cyclone basins, which are monitored by a variety of meteorological services and warning centres.

The factors that determine tropical cyclone activity are relatively well understood: warmer sea levels are favourable to tropical cyclones, as well as an unstable and moist mid-troposphere, while vertical wind shear suppresses them. All of these factors will change under climate change, but is not always clear which factor dominates. [3]

Data and models

North Atlantic tropical cyclone activity according to the Power Dissipation Index, 1949-2015. Sea surface temperature has been plotted alongside the PDI to show how they compare. The lines have been smoothed using a five-year weighted average, plotted at the middle year. North Atlantic Tropical Cyclone Activity 1949-2015 Power Dissipation Index PDI NOAA EPA.png
North Atlantic tropical cyclone activity according to the Power Dissipation Index, 1949–2015. Sea surface temperature has been plotted alongside the PDI to show how they compare. The lines have been smoothed using a five-year weighted average, plotted at the middle year.
North Atlantic tropical cyclone activity according to the Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index, 1950-2015. For a global ACE graph visit this link. North Atlantic Tropical Cyclone Activity According to the Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index 1950-2015.png
North Atlantic tropical cyclone activity according to the Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index, 1950–2015. For a global ACE graph visit this link.


Based on satellite imagery, the Dvorak technique is the primary technique used to estimate globally the tropical cyclone intensity. [4]

The Potential Intensity (PI) of tropical cyclones can be computed from observed data, primarily derived from vertical profiles of temperature, humidity and sea surface temperatures (SSTs). The convective available potential energy (CAPE), was computed from radiosonde stations in parts of the tropics from 1958 to 1997, but is considered to be of poor quality. The Power Dissipation Index (PDI) represents the total power dissipation for the North Atlantic and western North Pacific, and is strongly correlated with tropical SSTs. [5] Various tropical cyclone scales exist to classify a system.

Historical record

Since the satellite era, which began around 1970, trends are considered to be robust enough in regards to the connection of storms and sea surface temperatures. Agreement exists that there were active storm periods in the more distant past, but the sea surface temperature related Power Dissipation Index was not as high. [5] Paleotempestology is the science of past tropical cyclone activity by means of geological proxies (flood sediment), or historical documentary records, such as shipwrecks or tree ring anomalies. As of 2019, paleoclimate studies are not yet sufficiently consistent to draw conclusions for wider regions, but they do provide some useful information about specific locations. [6]

Modelling tropical cyclones

Climate models are used to study expected future changes in cyclonic activity. Lower-resolution climate models cannot represent convection directly, and instead use parametrizations to approximate the smaller scale processes. This poses difficulties for tropical cyclones, as convection is an essential part of tropical cyclone physics.

Higher-resolution global models and regional climate models may be more computer-intensive to run, making it difficult to simulate enough tropical cyclones for robust statistical analysis. However, with growing advancements in technology, climate models have improved simulation abilities for tropical cyclone frequency and intensity. [7] [8]

One challenge that scientists face when modeling is determining whether the recent changes in tropical cyclones are associated with anthropogenic forcing, or if these changes are still within their natural variability. [9] This is most apparent when examining tropical cyclones at longer temporal resolutions. One study found a decreasing trend in tropical storms along the eastern Australian coast over a century-long historical record. [10]

Changes in tropical cyclones

Climate change may affect tropical cyclones in a variety of ways: an intensification of rainfall and wind speed, a decrease in overall frequency, an increase in frequency of very intense storms and a poleward extension of where the cyclones reach maximum intensity are among the possible consequences of human-induced climate change. [11]


Warmer air can hold more water vapor: the theoretical maximum water vapor content is given by the Clausius–Clapeyron relation, which yields ≈7% increase in water vapor in the atmosphere per 1 °C warming. [12] [13] All models that were assessed in a 2019 review paper show a future increase of rainfall rates, which is the rain that falls per hour. [11] The World Meteorological Organization stated in 2017 that the quantity of rainfall from Hurricane Harvey had very likely been increased by climate change. [14] [15]

A tropical cyclone's rainfall area (in contrast to rate) is primarily controlled by its environmental sea surface temperature (SST) – relative to the tropical mean SST, called the relative sea surface temperature. Rainfall will expand outwards as the relative SST increases, associated with an expansion of a storm wind field. The largest tropical cyclones are observed in the western North Pacific tropics, where the largest values of relative SST and mid-tropospheric relative humidity are located. Assuming that ocean temperatures rise uniformly, a warming climate is not likely to impact rainfall area. [16]


Tropical cyclones use warm, moist air as their fuel. As climate change is warming ocean temperatures, there is potentially more of this fuel available. [17] A study published in 2012 suggests that SSTs may be valuable as a proxy to measure potential intensity (PI) of tropical cyclones, as cyclones are sensitive to ocean basin temperatures. [18] Between 1979 and 2017, there was a global increase in the proportion of tropical cyclones of Category 3 and higher on the Saffir–Simpson scale, which are cyclones with wind speeds over 178 km per hour. The trend was most clear in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Indian Ocean. In the North Pacific, tropical cyclones have been moving poleward into colder waters and there was no increase in intensity over this period. [19] With 2 °C warming, a greater percentage (+13%) of tropical cyclones are expected to reach Category 4 and 5 strength. [11]

Climate change has likely been driving the observed trend of rapid intensification of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin, with the proportion of storms undergoing intensification nearly doubling over the years 1982 to 2009. [20] [21] Rapidly intensifying cyclones are hard to forecast and pose additional risk to coastal communities. [22] Storms have also begun to decay more slowly once they make landfall, threatening areas further inland than in the past. [23] The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was exceptionally active and broke numerous records for frequency and intensity of storms. [24]


There is no consensus on how climate change will affect the overall frequency of tropical cyclones. [11] A majority of climate models show a decreased frequency in future projections. [6] For instance, a 2020 paper comparing nine high-resolution climate models found robust decreases in frequency in the Southern Indian Ocean and the Southern Hemisphere more generally, while finding mixed signals for Northern Hemisphere tropical cyclones. [25] Observations have shown little change in the overall frequency of tropical cyclones worldwide. [26]

A study published in 2015 concluded that there would be more tropical cyclones in a cooler climate, and that tropical cyclone genesis is possible with sea surface temperatures below 26 °C. [27] [28] With warmers sea surface temperatures, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, in tandem with increased levels of carbon dioxide, it is likely tropical cyclone frequency will be reduced in the future. [18] [29]

Research conducted by Murakami et al. following the 2015 hurricane season in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean where a record number of tropical cyclones and three simultaneous category 4 hurricanes occurred, concludes that greenhouse gas forcing enhances subtropical Pacific warming which they project will increase the frequency of extremely active tropical cyclones in this area. [30]

Storm tracks

There has been a poleward expansion of the latitude at which the maximum intensity of tropical cyclones occurs, which may be associated with climate change. [31] In the North Pacific, there may also be an eastward expansion. [32] Between 1949 and 2016, there was a slowdown in tropical cyclone translation speeds. It is unclear still to what extent this can be attributed to climate change: climate models do not all show this feature. [6]

Storm surges and flood hazards

Additional sea level rise will increase storm surge levels. [32] [33] It is plausible that extreme wind waves see an increase as a consequence of changes in tropical cyclones, further exacerbating storm surge dangers to coastal communities. [6] Between 1923 and 2008, storm surge incidents along the US Atlantic coast showed a positive trend. [34] A 2017 study looked at compounding effects from floods, storm surge, and terrestrial flooding (rivers), and projects an increase due to climate change. [33] [35] However, scientists are still uncertain whether recent increases of storm surges are a response to anthropogenic climate change. [36]

Tropical cyclones in different basins

Six tropical cyclones swirl over two basins on September 16, 2020. Six Tropical Systems Swirl Around Two Oceans (50342098013).jpg
Six tropical cyclones swirl over two basins on September 16, 2020.


Studies conducted in 2008 and 2016 looked at the duration of the Atlantic hurricane season, and found it may be getting longer, particular south of 30°N and east of 75°W, or the tendency toward more early- and late-season storms, correlated to warming sea surface temperatures. However, uncertainty is still high, and one study found no trend, another mixed results. [37]

A 2011 study linked increased activity of intense hurricanes in the North Atlantic with a northward shift and amplification of convective activities from the African easterly waves (AEWs). [38] A 2014 study investigated the response of AEWs to high emissions scenarios, and found increases in regional temperature gradients, convergence and uplift along the Intertropical Front of Africa, resulting in strengthening of the African easterly waves, affecting the climate over West Africa and the larger Atlantic basin. [39]

A 2017 study concluded that the 2015 highly active hurricane season could not be attributed solely to a strong El Niño event. Instead, subtropical warming was an important factor as well, a feature more common as a consequence of climate change. [30] A 2019 study found that increasing evaporation and the larger capability of the atmosphere to hold water vapor linked to climate change, already increased the amount of rainfall from hurricanes Katrina, Irma and Maria by 4 to 9 percent. Future increases of up to 30% were projected. [40]

A 2018 study found no significant trends in landfalling hurricane frequency nor intensity for the continental United States since 1900. Furthermore, growth in coastal populations and regional wealth served as the overwhelming drivers of observed increases in hurricane-related damage. [41]


Research based on records from Japan and Hawaii indicate that typhoons in the north-west Pacific intensified by 12–15% on average since 1977. The observed strongest typhoons doubled, or tripled in some regions, the intensity of particular landfalling systems is most pronounced. This uptick in storm intensity affects coastal populations in China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines, and has been attributed to warming ocean waters. The authors noted that it is not yet clear to what extent global warming caused the increased water temperatures, but observations are consistent with what the IPCC projects for warming of sea surface temperatures. [42] Vertical wind shear has seen decreasing trends in and around China, creating more favourable conditions for intense tropical cyclones. This is mainly in response to the weakening of the East Asian summer monsoon, a consequence of global warming. [43]

Risk management and adaptation

The most effective strategy to manage risks has been the development of early warning systems. [44] A further policy that would mitigate risks of flooding is reforestation of inland areas in order to strengthen the soil of the communities and reduce coastal inundation. [45] It is also recommended that local schools, churches, and other community infrastructure be permanently equipped to become cyclone shelters. [45] Focusing on applying resources towards immediate relief to those affected may divert attention from more long-term solutions. This is further exacerbated in lower-income communities and countries as they suffer most from the consequences of tropical cyclones. [45]

Pacific region

Specific national and supranational decisions have already been made and are being implemented. The Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific (FRDP) has been instituted to strengthen and better coordinate disaster response and climate change adaptation among nations and communities in the region. Specific nations such as Tonga and the Cook Islands in the Southern Pacific under this regime have developed a Joint National Action Plan on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management (JNAP) to coordinate and execute responses to the rising risk for climate change. [45] [46] These countries have identified the most vulnerable areas of their nations, generated national and supranational policies to be implemented, and provided specific goals and timelines to achieve these goals. [46] These actions to be implemented include reforestation, building of levees and dams, creation of early warning systems, reinforcing existing communication infrastructure, finding new sources of fresh water, promoting and subsidizing the proliferation renewable energy, improving irrigation techniques to promote sustainable agriculture, increase public education efforts on sustainable measures, and lobbying internationally for the increased use of renewable energy sources. [46]

United States

In the United States, there have been several initiatives taken to better prepare for the strengthening of hurricanes, such as preparing local emergency shelters, building sand dunes and levees, and reforestation initiatives. [47] Despite better modeling capabilities of hurricanes, property damage has increased dramatically. [48] The National Flood Insurance Program incentivizes people to re-build houses in flood-prone areas, and thereby hampers adaptation to increased risk from hurricanes and sea level rise. [49] Due to the wind shear and storm surge, a building with a weak building envelope is subject to more damages. Risk assessment using climate models help determine the structural integrity of residential buildings in hurricane-prone areas. [50]

Some ecosystems, such as marshes, mangroves, and coral reefs, can serve as a natural obstacle to coastal erosion, storm surges, and wind damage caused by hurricanes. [51] [52] These natural habitats are seen to be more cost-effective as they serve as a carbon sink and support biodiversity of a region. [52]   [53] Although there is substantial evidence of natural habitats being the more beneficial barrier for tropical cyclones, built defenses are often the primary solution for government agencies and decision makers. [54]  A study published in 2015, which assessed the feasibility of natural, engineered, and hybrid risk-mitigation to tropical cyclones in Freeport, Texas, found that incorporating natural ecosystems into risk-mitigation plans could reduce flood heights and ease the cost of built defenses in the future. [54]

Media and public perception

The destruction from early 21st century Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, such as Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Sandy, caused a substantial upsurge in interest in the subject of climate change and hurricanes by news media and the wider public, and concerns that global climatic change may have played a significant role in those events. In 2005 and 2017, related polling of populations affected by hurricanes concluded in 2005 that 39 percent of Americans believed climate change helped to fuel the intensity of hurricanes, rising to 55 percent in September 2017. [55]

After Typhoon Meranti in 2016, risk perception in China was not measured to increase. However, there was a clear rise in support for personal and community action against climate change. [56] In Taiwan, people that had lived through a typhoon did not express more anxiety about climate change. The survey did find a positive correlation between anxiety about typhoons and anxiety about climate change. [57]

See also

Related Research Articles

La Niña Coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that is the counterpart of El Niño

La Niña is an oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon that is the colder counterpart of El Niño, as part of the broader El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern. The name La Niña originates from Spanish for "the girl", by analogy to El Niño, meaning "the boy". In the past, it was also called an anti-El Niño and El Viejo, meaning "the old man".

Subtropical cyclone Cyclonic storm with both tropical and extratropical characteristics

A subtropical cyclone is a weather system that has some characteristics of both tropical and an extratropical cyclone.

El Niño–Southern Oscillation Physical oceanography

El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is an irregular periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, affecting the climate of much of the tropics and subtropics. The warming phase of the sea temperature is known as El Niño and the cooling phase as La Niña. The Southern Oscillation is the accompanying atmospheric component, coupled with the sea temperature change: El Niño is accompanied by high air surface pressure in the tropical western Pacific and La Niña with low air surface pressure there. The two periods last several months each and typically occur every few years with varying intensity per period.

Madden–Julian oscillation Tropical atmosphere element of variability

The Madden–Julian oscillation (MJO) is the largest element of the intraseasonal variability in the tropical atmosphere. It was discovered in 1971 by Roland Madden and Paul Julian of the American National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It is a large-scale coupling between atmospheric circulation and tropical deep atmospheric convection. Unlike a standing pattern like the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the Madden–Julian oscillation is a traveling pattern that propagates eastward, at approximately 4 to 8 m/s, through the atmosphere above the warm parts of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This overall circulation pattern manifests itself most clearly as anomalous rainfall.

Loop Current Ocean current between Cuba and Yucatán Peninsula

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Typhoon Type of tropical cyclone that develops in the Northern Hemisphere

A typhoon is a mature tropical cyclone that develops between 180° and 100°E in the Northern Hemisphere. This region is referred to as the Northwestern Pacific Basin, and is the most active tropical cyclone basin on Earth, accounting for almost one-third of the world's annual tropical cyclones. For organizational purposes, the northern Pacific Ocean is divided into three regions: the eastern, central, and western. The Regional Specialized Meteorological Center (RSMC) for tropical cyclone forecasts is in Japan, with other tropical cyclone warning centers for the northwest Pacific in Hawaii, the Philippines and Hong Kong. While the RSMC names each system, the main name list itself is coordinated among 18 countries that have territories threatened by typhoons each year.

Atlantic hurricane Tropical cyclone that forms in the Atlantic Ocean

An Atlantic hurricane or tropical storm is a tropical cyclone that forms in the Atlantic Ocean, primarily between the months of June and November. A hurricane differs from a cyclone or typhoon only on the basis of location. A hurricane is a storm that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and northeastern Pacific Ocean, a typhoon occurs in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, and a cyclone occurs in the South Pacific Ocean or Indian Ocean.

Tropical cyclogenesis Development and strengthening of a tropical cyclone in the atmosphere

Tropical cyclogenesis is the development and strengthening of a tropical cyclone in the atmosphere. The mechanisms through which tropical cyclogenesis occurs are distinctly different from those through which temperate cyclogenesis occurs. Tropical cyclogenesis involves the development of a warm-core cyclone, due to significant convection in a favorable atmospheric environment.

Azores High High air pressure area in the Atlantic Ocean

The Azores High also known as North Atlantic (Subtropical) High/Anticyclone or the Bermuda-Azores High, is a large subtropical semi-permanent centre of high atmospheric pressure typically found south of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean, at the Horse latitudes. It forms one pole of the North Atlantic oscillation, the other being the Icelandic Low. The system influences the weather and climatic patterns of vast areas of North Africa and Southern Europe, and to a lesser extent, eastern North America. The aridity of the Sahara Desert and the summer drought of the Mediterranean Basin is due to the large-scale subsidence and sinking motion of air in the system. In its summer position, the high is centered near Bermuda, and creates a southwest flow of warm tropical air toward the East Coast of the United States. In summer, the Azores-Bermuda High is strongest. The central pressure hovers around 1024 mbar (hPa).

Extratropical cyclone Type of cyclone

Extratropical cyclones, sometimes called mid-latitude cyclones or wave cyclones, are low-pressure areas which, along with the anticyclones of high-pressure areas, drive the weather over much of the Earth. Extratropical cyclones are capable of producing anything from cloudiness and mild showers to severe gales, thunderstorms, blizzards, and tornadoes. These types of cyclones are defined as large scale (synoptic) low pressure weather systems that occur in the middle latitudes of the Earth. In contrast with tropical cyclones, extratropical cyclones produce rapid changes in temperature and dew point along broad lines, called weather fronts, about the center of the cyclone.

Tropical cyclone Rotating storm system with a closed, low-level circulation

A tropical cyclone is a rapidly rotating storm system characterized by a low-pressure center, a closed low-level atmospheric circulation, strong winds, and a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms that produce heavy rain and/or squalls. Depending on its location and strength, a tropical cyclone is referred to by different names, including hurricane, typhoon, tropical storm, cyclonic storm, tropical depression, or simply cyclone. A hurricane is a strong tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean or northeastern Pacific Ocean, and a typhoon occurs in the northwestern Pacific Ocean; in the Indian Ocean, south Pacific, or (rarely) South Atlantic, comparable storms are referred to simply as "tropical cyclones", and such storms in the Indian Ocean can also be called "severe cyclonic storms".

Atlantic multidecadal oscillation Climate cycle that affects the surface temperature of the North Atlantic

The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), also known as Atlantic Multidecadal Variability (AMV), is the theorized variability of the sea surface temperature (SST) of the North Atlantic Ocean on the timescale of several decades.

Indian Ocean Dipole

The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), also known as the Indian Niño, is an irregular oscillation of sea surface temperatures in which the western Indian Ocean becomes alternately warmer and then colder than the eastern part of the ocean.

Tropical cyclone forecasting Science of forecasting how a tropical cyclone moves and its effects

Tropical cyclone forecasting is the science of forecasting where a tropical cyclone's center, and its effects, are expected to be at some point in the future. There are several elements to tropical cyclone forecasting: track forecasting, intensity forecasting, rainfall forecasting, storm surge, tornado, and seasonal forecasting. While skill is increasing in regard to track forecasting, intensity forecasting skill remains unchanged over the past several years. Seasonal forecasting began in the 1980s in the Atlantic basin and has spread into other basins in the years since.

Natural disasters in India Natural disasters in India

Natural catastrophe in India, many of them related to the climate of India, cause massive losses of life and property. Droughts, flash floods, cyclones, avalanches, landslides brought by torrential rains, and snowstorms pose the greatest threats. A natural disaster might be caused by earthquakes, flooding, volcanic eruption, landslides, hurricanes etc. In order to be classified as a disaster, it will need to have a profound environmental effect and/or human loss and frequently incurs a financial loss. Other dangers include frequent summer dust storms, which usually track from north to south; they cause extensive property damage in North India and deposit large amounts of dust and dirt from arid regions. Hail is also common in parts of India, causing severe damage to standing crops such as rice and wheat and many more crops.

Westerly wind burst

A westerly wind burst is a phenomenon commonly associated with El Niño events, whereby the typical east-to-west trade winds across the equatorial Pacific shift to west-to-east. A westerly wind burst is defined by Harrison and Vecchi (1997) as sustained winds of 25 km/h (16 mph) over a period of 5–20 days. However, no concrete definition has been determined, with Tziperman and Yu (2007) defining them as having winds of 14 km/h (8.7 mph) and lasting "at least a few days". On average, three of these events take place each year, but are significantly more common during El Niño years. They have been linked to various mesoscale phenomena, including tropical cyclones, mid-latitude cold surges, and the Madden–Julian oscillation. Their connection with Kelvin waves also indicate a connection with the onset of El Niño events, with every major occurrence since the 1950s featuring a westerly wind burst upon their onset.

Cyclonic Niño

Cyclonic Niño is a climatological phenomenon that has been observed in climate models where tropical cyclone activity is increased. Increased tropical cyclone activity mixes ocean waters, introducing cooling in the upper layer of the ocean that quickly dissipates and warming in deeper layers that lasts considerably more, resulting in a net warming of the ocean.

Pacific Meridional Mode Climate mode in the North Pacific

Pacific Meridional Mode (PMM) is a climate mode in the North Pacific. In its positive state, it is characterized by the coupling of weaker trade winds in the northeast Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Baja California with decreased evaporation over the ocean, thus increasing sea surface temperatures (SST); and the reverse during its negative state. This coupling develops during the winter months and spreads southwestward towards the equator and the central and western Pacific during spring, until it reaches the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which tends to shift north in response to a positive PMM.


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