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Atlantic hurricanes and climate over the past 1,500 years

Abstract

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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Figure 1: Overwash sediment records of landfalling hurricanes.
Figure 2: Proxy reconstructions used in statistical model estimates of Atlantic tropical cyclone counts.
Figure 3: Long-term Atlantic tropical cyclone counts.

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Acknowledgements

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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Correspondence to Michael E. Mann.

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Mann, M., Woodruff, J., Donnelly, J. et al. Atlantic hurricanes and climate over the past 1,500 years. Nature 460, 880–883 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08219

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