Australian tropical cyclone activity lower than at any time over the past 550–1,500 years

Abstract

The assessment of changes in tropical cyclone activity within the context of anthropogenically influenced climate change has been limited by the short temporal resolution of the instrumental tropical cyclone record1,2 (less than 50 years). Furthermore, controversy exists regarding the robustness of the observational record, especially before 19903,4,5. Here we show, on the basis of a new tropical cyclone activity index (CAI), that the present low levels of storm activity on the mid west and northeast coasts of Australia are unprecedented over the past 550 to 1,500 years. The CAI allows for a direct comparison between the modern instrumental record and long-term palaeotempest (prehistoric tropical cyclone) records derived from the 18O/16O ratio of seasonally accreting carbonate layers of actively growing stalagmites. Our results reveal a repeated multicentennial cycle of tropical cyclone activity, the most recent of which commenced around ad 1700. The present cycle includes a sharp decrease in activity after 1960 in Western Australia. This is in contrast to the increasing frequency and destructiveness of Northern Hemisphere tropical cyclones since 1970 in the Atlantic Ocean6,7,8 and the western North Pacific Ocean6,7. Other studies project a decrease in the frequency of tropical cyclones towards the end of the twenty-first century in the southwest Pacific7,9, southern Indian9,10 and Australian11 regions. Our results, although based on a limited record, suggest that this may be occurring much earlier than expected.

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Figure 1: Site map showing the four-stage calculation of CAI.
Figure 2: Calculated CAI versus the de-trended carbonate values from CR-1 and CH-1 (δ18OA).
Figure 3: CAI over the last 1,500 and 700 years.

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Acknowledgements

Funding for this project was provided by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Projects Scheme (reference number DP0772691) and financial assistance given as part of the Queensland Smart State Initiative. Analytical procedures were conducted at James Cook University and the University of Utrecht. Special thanks are extended to C. Zwart for his input and advice regarding the development of CAI and his editing of this manuscript. Additional thanks are extended to A. van Dijk and L. Lourens for technical help with IRMS analyses.

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Contributions

J.N. collected the two stalagmites, provided funding for the project through the ARC grant and participated in critical discussions on the development of CAI. G.-J.R. provided access to facilities and advice on the data processing. J.H. helped collect one stalagmite, processed both stalagmites, analysed the data, developed and tested CAI, and wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jordahna Haig.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 δ18O VSMOW measured from Hurricane Olivia (1995) versus the calculated Kt values for the corresponding measurement interval.

a, δ18O versus Kt for all rain types in Hurricane Olivia. r = −0.58, P = 0.02, n = 25. b, δ18O versus Kt within the eye wall. Shaded area indicates the r.m.s.e. r = −0.70, P = 0.02, n = 15.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Data

This file contains the original wet season stalagmite carbonate data (δ18OC) for both sites: Cape Range, Western Australia (δ18OCR-1) and Chillagoe, Queensland (δ18OCH-1) from 511AD to 2010AD. Samples were milled from the stalagmite profiles using a video-controlled Micromill. All measurements are reported relative to Vienna PeeDee Belemnite (VPDB). (XLS 114 kb)

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Haig, J., Nott, J. & Reichart, G. Australian tropical cyclone activity lower than at any time over the past 550–1,500 years. Nature 505, 667–671 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12882

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