Old-school data suggests hurricanes in the Atlantic are not more frequent than in the past – Watts Up With That?

Old-school data suggests hurricanes in the Atlantic are not more frequent than in the past – Watts Up With That?

by Bob Yirka , Phys.org

Researchers affiliated with several institutions in the United States has determined that the increase in the number of hurricanes forming in the Atlantic over the past several years is not related to global warming. They suggest instead, in their paper published in the journal Nature Communications, that it is simply reflective of natural variable weather patterns.

Over the past several decades, scientists studying satellite data have found that the number of hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean has been increasing. Many in the field have suggested that this is due to the impact of global warming. A warming ocean, they note would naturally lead to more active atmospheric activity. The problem with such thinking, the researchers from this new effort note, is that satellite data only goes back to 1972. Prior to that date, data on hurricane frequency tended to come from eyewitness accounts, which left out many hurricanes that never touched land. In this new study, the researchers went back to the old record books to learn more about the frequency of hurricanes prior to satellites.

The old-time data stretched as far back as 1851 and came courtesy of records kept by workers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The workers had collected the data from eyewitnesses across the eastern seaboard, along the Gulf of Mexico, islands in the Atlantic and fishermen venturing out to sea. The researchers then calculated the ratios of hurricanes that never came ashore in modern times to those that did, and worked backwards using modern data along with math techniques to estimate the number of hurricanes going back to 1860 that were never recorded. They then plotted those numbers on a timeline.


Atlantic hurricanes are a major hazard to life and property, and a topic of intense scientific interest. Historical changes in observing practices limit the utility of century-scale records of Atlantic major hurricane frequency. To evaluate past changes in frequency, we have here developed a homogenization method for Atlantic hurricane and major hurricane frequency over 1851–2019. We find that recorded century-scale increases in Atlantic hurricane and major hurricane frequency, and associated decrease in USA hurricanes strike fraction, are consistent with changes in observing practices and not likely a true climate trend. After homogenization, increases in basin-wide hurricane and major hurricane activity since the 1970s are not part of a century-scale increase, but a recovery from a deep minimum in the 1960s–1980s. We suggest internal (e.g., Atlantic multidecadal) climate variability and aerosol-induced mid-to-late-20th century major hurricane frequency reductions have probably masked century-scale greenhouse-gas warming contributions to North Atlantic major hurricane frequency.


Tropical cyclones (TCs) are of intense scientific interest and are a major threat to human life and property across the globe1,2,3. Of particular interest are multi-decadal changes in TC frequency arising from some combination of intrinsic variability in the weather and climate system, and the response to natural and anthropogenic climate forcing4,5,6,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25. Even though the North Atlantic (NA) basin is a minor contributor to global TC frequency, Atlantic hurricanes (HUs) have been the topic of considerable research both because of the long-term records of their track and frequency that exist for this basin, and because of their impacts at landfall. It is convenient and common to consider Saffir-Simpson Categories 3–5 (peak sustained winds exceeding 50 ms−1) HUs separately from the overall frequency, and label them major hurricanes, or MHs. Historically, MHs have accounted for ~80% of hurricane-related damage in the United States of America (USA) despite only representing 34% of USA TC occurrences1.

Globally, models and theoretical arguments indicate that in a warming world the HU peak intensity and intensification rate should increase, so that there is a tendency for the fraction of HU reaching high Saffir-Simpson Categories (3, 4, or 5) to increase in models in response to CO2 increases, yet model projections are more mixed regarding changes in the frequency of MHs in individual basins (e.g., NA)6,20,21,22,25,26,27,28,29,30. Homogenized satellite-based TC intensity observations since the early 1980s show an increase in the fraction of MH to overall TCs both in the NA and globally14, and there has also been a documented increase since the 1980s in the fraction of global and NA HU that undergo rapid intensification15. Theoretical arguments, modeling studies, and observational analyses indicate that the overall frequency of TCs and their intensity across the tropics, and for Atlantic HUs in particular, may vary differently and exhibit distinct connections to climate drivers14,15,25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32. There is substantial spread in model projections of the 21st century response of both overall NA HU frequency and of the response of the frequency of the most intense NA HUs6,20,21,22,25,26,27,28,29,30. However, the connection between recent recorded multi-decadal changes in NA HU activity and 21st century HU projections is complicated by the fact that recent changes (e.g., since the 1970s) in NA HU and MH activity likely contain a substantial contribution from internal climate variation or non-greenhouse gas forcing16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23.

Has there been a century-scale change in the number of the most intense hurricanes in the North Atlantic? Analyses of longer records (i.e., going back into the 19th century) of NA HU and MH frequency provide an additional lens with which to interpret both recent HU activity changes and projections of future hurricane activity. The North Atlantic Hurricane Database version 2 (HURDAT2; ref. 33) provides records of NA HU activity going back to 1851—a nearly 170-year record of HU activity. Using HURDAT2, one can explore secular changes in aggregate statistics of NA HU activity, such as the annual number of HU and MH strikes in the USA and the annual number of HUs and MHs in the Atlantic (or basin-wide HU and MH frequency). The USA HU strike record we use includes storms for which either hurricane strength, or vmax ≥ 33 ms−1, or major hurricane strength, or vmax ≥ 50 ms−1, winds impacted the continental USA from the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico, so this record includes storms for which the center did not cross onto land.

Due to changes in observing practices, severe inhomogeneities exist in this database, complicating the assessment of long-term changes7,8,9,10,11,12,13. In particular, there has been a substantial increase in monitoring capacity over the past 170 years, so that the probability that a HU is observed is substantially higher in the present than early in the record10; the recorded increase in both Atlantic TC and HU frequency in HURDAT2 since the late-19th century is consistent with the impact of known changes in observing practices7,8,9,10,11,12. Major hurricane frequency estimates can also be impacted by changing observing systems13.

We here show that recorded increases in NA HU and MH frequency, and in the ratio of MH to HU, can be understood as resulting from past changes in sampling of the NA. We build on the methodology and extend the results of ref. 10 to develop a homogenized record of basin-wide NA HU and MH frequency from 1851–2019 (see Methods Section), this homogenized record indicates that the increase in NA HU and MH frequency since the 1970s is not a continuation of century-scale change, but a rebound from a deep minimum in the late 20th century.

This blog post we covered last month seems to foreshadow this paper.

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