Letter | Published:

Atlantic hurricanes and climate over the past 1,500 years

Nature volume 460, pages 880883 (13 August 2009) | Download Citation


Atlantic tropical cyclone activity, as measured by annual storm counts, reached anomalous levels over the past decade1. The short nature of the historical record and potential issues with its reliability in earlier decades, however, has prompted an ongoing debate regarding the reality and significance of the recent rise2,3,4,5. Here we place recent activity in a longer-term context by comparing two independent estimates of tropical cyclone activity over the past 1,500 years. The first estimate is based on a composite of regional sedimentary evidence of landfalling hurricanes, while the second estimate uses a previously published statistical model of Atlantic tropical cyclone activity driven by proxy reconstructions of past climate changes. Both approaches yield consistent evidence of a peak in Atlantic tropical cyclone activity during medieval times (around ad 1000) followed by a subsequent lull in activity. The statistical model indicates that the medieval peak, which rivals or even exceeds (within uncertainties) recent levels of activity, results from the reinforcing effects of La-Niña-like climate conditions and relative tropical Atlantic warmth.

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Acknowledgments We thank C. Landsea for comments on the manuscript. M.E.M. and Z.Z. acknowledge support from the ATM programme of the National Science Foundation (grant ATM-0542356). J.P.D. acknowledges support from the EAR and OCE programmes of the National Science Foundation (grants EAR-0519118 and OCE-0402746), the Risk Prediction Initiative at the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences, and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research. This is a contribution of IGCP 495—‘Holocene land–ocean interactions: driving mechanisms and coastal responses’.

Author Contributions M.E.M. performed the statistical reconstructions of tropical cyclone and hurricane activity. J.D.W. and J.P.D. provided the sediment overwash records of hurricane landfall and their uncertainties. J.D.W. provided the landfall return period estimates. Z.Z. provided the climate reconstructions used and their uncertainties. M.E.M. primarily wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and provided input on the manuscript.

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  1. Department of Meteorology and Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA

    • Michael E. Mann
    •  & Zhihua Zhang
  2. Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, USA

    • Jonathan D. Woodruff
  3. Department of Geology and Geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Jeffrey P. Donnelly


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Correspondence to Michael E. Mann.

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