Effect of remote sea surface temperature change on tropical cyclone potential intensity

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The response of tropical cyclone activity to global warming is widely debated1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. It is often assumed that warmer sea surface temperatures provide a more favourable environment for the development and intensification of tropical cyclones, but cyclone genesis and intensity are also affected by the vertical thermodynamic properties of the atmosphere1,10,11,12,13. Here we use climate models and observational reconstructions to explore the relationship between changes in sea surface temperature and tropical cyclone ‘potential intensity’—a measure that provides an upper bound on cyclone intensity10,11,12,13,14 and can also reflect the likelihood of cyclone development15,16. We find that changes in local sea surface temperature are inadequate for characterizing even the sign of changes in potential intensity, but that long-term changes in potential intensity are closely related to the regional structure of warming; regions that warm more than the tropical average are characterized by increased potential intensity, and vice versa. We use this relationship to reconstruct changes in potential intensity over the twentieth century from observational reconstructions of sea surface temperature. We find that, even though tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures are currently at a historical high, Atlantic potential intensity probably peaked in the 1930s and 1950s, and recent values are near the historical average. Our results indicate that—per unit local sea surface temperature change—the response of tropical cyclone activity to natural climate variations, which tend to involve localized changes in sea surface temperature, may be larger than the response to the more uniform patterns of greenhouse-gas-induced warming.

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Figure 1: Spatial structure of model-projected changes in SST and PI for the twenty-first century.
Figure 2: Time series of June–November change in SST and PI.
Figure 3: Century-scale trends in SST and an estimate for PI.
Figure 4: Anomalies in SST and estimated PI since the late nineteenth century.


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We acknowledge the various modelling groups for providing their data, and PCMDI and the IPCC Data Archive at LLNL/DOE for collecting, archiving and making the data readily available. We thank T. Delworth, K. Dixon, S. Garner, D. E. Harrison, I. Held, A. E. Johansson, T. Knutson, R. Stouffer, A. Wittenberg, S. Ilcane and A. Laperra for discussion, and K. Emanuel for comments. This work was partially supported by NASA and NOAA-OGP.

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Correspondence to Gabriel A. Vecchi.

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The file contains Supplementary Notes with additional references and Supplementary Figures 1-6 with Legends. (PDF 7263 kb)

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