Hurricanes Are Becoming More Powerful, New Data Suggests

Hurricane Harvey over North America in 2017 from GOES-16. GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. UW-Madison SSEC

Hurricanes are increasing in intensity in nearly every region of the world where the tropical cyclones occur and a warming planet could be to blame, according to a new analysis of nearly 40 years of satellite data. 

Scientists at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Center for Environmental Information and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies built upon a previous dataset of hurricane satellite imagery to analyze images from between 1979 to 2017. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that storm intensity has increased along with global mean surface temperatures to suggest that a changing climate may be the driving cause. 

"Through modeling and our understanding of atmospheric physics, the study agrees with what we would expect to see in a warming climate like ours," said James Kossin in a statementThe probability of a hurricane having wind speeds of at least 100 knots has increased by about 15 percent over the years analyzed with an 8 percent increase each decade.

The findings build on previous work published in 2013 that found similar trends in hurricane intensification over a 28-year-period but includes more hurricane case studies to demonstrate statistically significant results. 

A visible light image of Hurricane Irma in 2017 from GOES-16. GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite.  UW-Madison SSEC

"Our results show that these storms have become stronger on global and regional levels, which is consistent with expectations of how hurricanes respond to a warming world," said Kossin. "It's a good step forward and increases our confidence that global warming has made hurricanes stronger, but our results don't tell us precisely how much of the trends are caused by human activities and how much may be just natural variability."

Tropical cyclones pose a threat in many regions around the world both to human lives and property damage. Understanding how the storm systems are changing may help societies to develop adaptation and mitigation measures in the face of a changing planet

"Tropical cyclones (TC), and particularly major TCs, pose substantial risk to many regions around the world," write the authors. "Identifying changes in this risk and determining causal factors for the changes is a critical element for taking steps toward adaptation."  

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