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.
Your institute does not have access to this article
Open Access articles citing this article.
Advances in Atmospheric Sciences Open Access 21 January 2022
Nature Communications Open Access 25 March 2021
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Shen, W., Tuleya, R. E. & Ginis, I. A sensitivity study of the thermodynamic environment on GFDL model hurricane intensity: Implications for global warming. J. Clim. 13, 109–121 (2000)
Goldenberg, S. B., Landsea, C., Mestas-Nunez, A. M. & Gray, W. M. The recent increase in Atlantic hurricane activity. Science 293, 474–479 (2001)
Knutson, T. R. & Tuleya, R. E. Impact of CO2-induced warming on simulated hurricane intensity and precipitation: Sensitivity to the choice of climate model and convective parameterization. J. Clim. 17, 3477–3495 (2004)
Emanuel, K. A. Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years. Nature 436, 686–688 (2005)
Webster, P. J., Holland, G. J., Curry, J. A. & Chang, H.-R. Changes in tropical cyclone number, duration and intensity in a warming environment. Science 309, 1844–1846 (2005)
Zhang, R. & Delworth, T. L. Impact of Atlantic multidecadal oscillations on India/Sahel rainfall and Atlantic hurricanes. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33 L17712 doi: 10.1029/2006GL026267 (2006)
Knutson, T. R., Sirutis, J. J., Garner, S. T., Held, I. M. & Tuleya, R. E. Simulation of the recent multi-decadal increase of Atlantic hurricane activity using an 18-km grid regional model. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 88 (10). 1549–1565 (2007)
Latif, M., Keenlyside, N. & Bader, J. Tropical sea surface temperature, vertical wind shear, and hurricane development. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34 L01710 10.1029/2006GL027969 (2007)
Vecchi, G. A. & Soden, B. J. Increased tropical atlantic wind shear in model projections of global warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34 L08702 doi: 10.1029/2006GL028905 (2007)
Emanuel, K. A. Environmental factors affecting tropical cyclone power dissipation. J. Clim. (in the press)
Bister, M. & Emanuel, K. A. Dissipative heating and hurricane intensity. Meteorol. Atmos. Phys. 65 233–240 doi: 10.1007/BF01030791 (1998)
Bister, M. & Emanuel, K. A. Low frequency variability of tropical cyclone potential intensity. 1. Interannual to interdecadal variability. J. Geophys. Res. 107 4801 10.1029/2001JD000776 (2002)
Holland, G. J. The maximum potential intensity of tropical cyclones. J. Atmos. Sci. 54, 2519–2541 (1997)
Emanuel, K. A statistical analysis of tropical cyclone intensity. Mon. Weath. Rev. 128, 1139–1152 (2000)
Emanuel, K. A. & Nolan, D. S. Tropical cyclones and the global climate system. In 26th Conf. Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology (American Meteorological Society, Miami, 2004). 〈ftp://texmex.mit.edu/pub/emanuel/PAPERS/em_nolan_extended_2004.pdf〉
Camargo, S. J., Emanuel, K. A. & Sobel, A. H. Use of genesis potential index to diagnose ENSO effects upon tropical cyclone genesis. J. Clim. 20, 4819–4834 (2007)
Elsner, J. B., Tsonis, A. A. & Jagger, T. H. High-frequency variability in hurricane power dissipation and its relationship to global temperature. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 87, 763–768 (2006)
Sobel, A. H., Held, I. M. & Bretherton, C. S. The ENSO signal in tropical tropospheric temperature. J. Clim. 15, 2702–2706 (2002)
Tang, B. H. & Neelin, J. D. ENSO Influence on Atlantic hurricanes via tropospheric warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31 L24204 doi: 10.1029/2004GL021072 (2004)
Uppala, S. M. et al. The ERA-40 reanalysis. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 131, 2961–3012 (2005)
Kalnay, E. et al. The NMC/NCAR 40-year reanalysis project. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 77, 437–471 (1996)
Smith, T. M. & Reynolds, R. W. Extended reconstruction of global sea surface temperatures based on COADS data (1854–1997). J. Clim. 16, 1495–1510 (2003)
Rayner, N. A. et al. Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res. 108 10.1029/2002JD002670 (2003)
Kaplan, A. et al. Analyses of global sea surface temperature 1856–1991. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 18567–18589 (1998)
Vecchi, G. A. & Soden, B. J. Global warming and the weakening of the tropical circulation. J. Clim. 20, 4316–4340 (2007)
Liu, Z., Vavrus, S., He, F., Wen, N. & Zhong, Y. Rethinking tropical ocean response to global warming: The enhanced equatorial warming. J. Clim. 18, 4684–4700 (2005)
Vimont, D. J. & Kossin, J. P. The Atlantic Meridional Mode and hurricane activity. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34 L07709 doi: 10.1029/2007GL029683 (2007)
Wang, C., Enfield, D. B., Lee, S.-K. & Landsea, C. W. Influences of the Atlantic warm pool on western hemisphere summer rainfall and Atlantic hurricanes. J. Clim. 19, 3011–3028 (2006)
Broccoli, A. Tropical cooling at the Last Glacial Maximum: An atmosphere–mixed layer ocean model simulation. J. Clim. 13, 951–976 (2000)
CLIMAP Project Members. The last interglacial ocean. Quat. Res. 21, 123–224 (1984)
Gualdi, S., Scoccimarro, E., Bellucci, A., Grezio, A., Manzini, E. & Navarra, A. The main features of the 20th century climate as simulated with the SGX coupled GCM. Claris News 4, 7–13 (2006)
Gordon, H. B. et al. The CSIRO Mk3 Climate System Model. Tech. Report 60 (CSIRO Atmospheric Research, Aspendale, Victoria, 2002)
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Vecchi, G., Soden, B. Effect of remote sea surface temperature change on tropical cyclone potential intensity. Nature 450, 1066–1070 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature06423
Nature Geoscience (2022)
Quantifying the Contribution of Track Changes to Interannual Variations of North Atlantic Intense Hurricanes
Advances in Atmospheric Sciences (2022)
Ocean and atmospheric characteristics associated with the cyclogenesis and rapid intensification of NIO super cyclonic storms during 1981–2020
Natural Hazards (2022)
Advances in Atmospheric Sciences (2022)
Impacts of sea-surface temperatures on rapid intensification and mature phases of super cyclone Amphan (2020)
Journal of Earth System Science (2022)