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Nature. 2008 Jan 31;451(7178):557-60. doi: 10.1038/nature06422.

Large contribution of sea surface warming to recent increase in Atlantic hurricane activity.

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  • 1Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, Department of Space and Climate Physics, University College London, Holmbury St Mary, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6NT, UK.


Atlantic hurricane activity has increased significantly since 1995 (refs 1-4), but the underlying causes of this increase remain uncertain. It is widely thought that rising Atlantic sea surface temperatures have had a role in this, but the magnitude of this contribution is not known. Here we quantify this contribution for storms that formed in the tropical North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico; these regions together account for most of the hurricanes that make landfall in the United States. We show that a statistical model based on two environmental variables--local sea surface temperature and an atmospheric wind field--can replicate a large proportion of the variance in tropical Atlantic hurricane frequency and activity between 1965 and 2005. We then remove the influence of the atmospheric wind field to assess the contribution of sea surface temperature. Our results indicate that the sensitivity of tropical Atlantic hurricane activity to August-September sea surface temperature over the period we consider is such that a 0.5 degrees C increase in sea surface temperature is associated with a approximately 40% increase in hurricane frequency and activity. The results also indicate that local sea surface warming was responsible for approximately 40% of the increase in hurricane activity relative to the 1950-2000 average between 1996 and 2005. Our analysis does not identify whether warming induced by greenhouse gases contributed to the increase in hurricane activity, but the ability of climate models to reproduce the observed relationship between hurricanes and sea surface temperature will serve as a useful means of assessing whether they are likely to provide reliable projections of future changes in Atlantic hurricane activity.

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