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Low Atlantic hurricane activity in the 1970s and 1980s compared to the past 270 years


Hurricane activity in the North Atlantic Ocean has increased significantly since 1995 (refs 1, 2). This trend has been attributed to both anthropogenically induced climate change3 and natural variability1, but the primary cause remains uncertain. Changes in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the past can provide insights into the factors that influence hurricane activity, but reliable observations of hurricane activity in the North Atlantic only cover the past few decades2. Here we construct a record of the frequency of major Atlantic hurricanes over the past 270 years using proxy records of vertical wind shear and sea surface temperature (the main controls on the formation of major hurricanes in this region1,3,4,5) from corals and a marine sediment core. The record indicates that the average frequency of major hurricanes decreased gradually from the 1760s until the early 1990s, reaching anomalously low values during the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, the phase of enhanced hurricane activity since 1995 is not unusual compared to other periods of high hurricane activity in the record and thus appears to represent a recovery to normal hurricane activity, rather than a direct response to increasing sea surface temperature. Comparison of the record with a reconstruction of vertical wind shear indicates that variability in this parameter primarily controlled the frequency of major hurricanes in the Atlantic over the past 270 years, suggesting that changes in the magnitude of vertical wind shear will have a significant influence on future hurricane activity.

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Figure 1: Simultaneous correlation of zonal winds in August-September (1955–2004) with the unsmoothed Atlantic hurricane index2.
Figure 2: Spatial correlations between instrumentally observed vertical windshear (| V z |) in August–October and the proxies used.
Figure 3: The reconstructed major hurricane activity and | V z | series back to 1730.
Figure 4: The reconstructed major hurricane and | V z |-series compared to total solar irradiance and AMO indices.

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This work is supported by grants from the Swedish Research Council (to J.N.).

Author Contributions J.N. derived the coral records, the vertical wind shear and hurricane reconstructions and wrote the paper, except for the Figs 1 legend and parts of the penultimate paragraph, which were written by M.R.J. M.R.J., B.A.M., A.W. and K.H.K. assisted and commented on the manuscript. K.H.K. and T.M.Q. provided X-rayed slices from the coral core retrieved 2004 outside La Parguera.

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Correspondence to Johan Nyberg.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-4 with Legends; Supplementary Figures 1-3 with Legends and additional references. Supplementary Table 1 shows correlation coefficients between the proxies used and instrumentally observed vertical windshear and reliable observed number of major hurricanes. Supplementary Table 2 shows correlation coefficients between luminescence intensity in the different coral cores. Supplementary Tables 3 and 4 show type and performance of the ten independent neural networks and multiple regression results. Supplementary Figures 1 and 2 show results from wavelet spectral and spectral analyses. Supplementary Figure 3 shows Caribbean temperatures. (PDF 456 kb)

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Nyberg, J., Malmgren, B., Winter, A. et al. Low Atlantic hurricane activity in the 1970s and 1980s compared to the past 270 years. Nature 447, 698–701 (2007).

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