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What is the link between hurricanes and global warming?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

There is increasing evidence that hurricanes are getting stronger due to global warming.

Climate Myth...

Hurricanes aren't linked to global warming

“According to the National Hurricane Center, storms are no more intense or frequent worldwide than they have been since 1850. […] Constant 24-7 media coverage of every significant storm worldwide just makes it seem that way.” (Paul Bedard)

The current research into the effects of climate change on tropical storms demonstrates not only the virtues and transparency of the scientific method at work, but rebuts the frequent suggestion that scientists fit their findings to a pre-determined agenda in support of climate change. In the case of storm frequency, there is no consensus and reputable scientists have two diametrically opposed theories about increasing frequencies of such events.

The background to these enquiries stems from a simple observation: extra heat in the air or the oceans is a form of energy, and storms are driven by such energy. What we do not know is whether we might see more storms as a result of extra energy or, as other researchers believe, the storms may grow more intense, but the number might actually diminish.

What do the records show? When this rebuttal was first published in 2010, the Pew Centre stated, “Globally, there is an average of about 90 tropical storms a year”. The IPCC AR4 report (2007) says regarding global tropical storms: "There is no clear trend in the annual numbers [i.e. frequency] of tropical cyclones."

But this graph, also from the Pew Centre, shows a 40% increase in North Atlantic tropical storms over the historic maximum of the mid-1950, which at the time was considered extreme:

But while the numbers are not contested, their significance most certainly is. Another study considered how this information was being collected, and research suggested that the increase in reported storms was due to improved monitoring rather than more storms actually taking place.

And to cap it off, two recent peer-reviewed studies completely contradict each other. One paper predicts considerably more storms due to global warming. Another paper suggests the exact opposite – that there will be fewer storms in the future.

What can we conclude from these studies? About hurricane frequency – not much; the jury is out, as they say. About climate change, we can say that these differing approaches are the very stuff of good science, and the science clearly isn’t settled! It is also obvious that researchers are not shying away from refuting associations with climate change, so we can assume they don’t think their funding or salaries are jeopardised by research they believe fails to support the case for AGW. The scientific method is alive and well.

Never mind the frequency, feel the width

So far, all we’ve managed is to document here is what we don’t know for sure yet. But we do know there is extra energy in the system now, so could it have any other effects on tropical storms? Here, the science is far less equivocal, and there is a broad consensus that storms are increasing in strength, or severity. This attribute, called the Power Dissipation Index, measures the duration and intensity (wind speed) of storms, and research has found that since the mid-1970s, there has been an increase in the energy of storms.

Recent research has shown that we are experiencing more storms with higher wind speeds, and these storms will be more destructive, last longer and make landfall more frequently than in the past. Because this phenomenon is strongly associated with sea surface temperatures, it is reasonable to suggest a strong probability that the increase in storm intensity and climate change are linked.

Basic rebuttal written by GPWayne

Update July 2015:

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial


This rebuttal was updated by Judith Matz in September 2021 to replace broken links. The updates are a result of our call for help published in May 2021.

Last updated on 5 July 2015 by pattimer. View Archives

Printable Version  |  Offline PDF Version  |  Link to this page

Argument Feedback

Please use this form to let us know about suggested updates to this rebuttal.


The image North Atlantic Tropical Storms and Observing Techniques is courtesy of Global Warming Art.

Emanuel's graph of PDI versus temperature was courtesy of Climate 411.

Further reading


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Comments 76 to 93 out of 93:

  1. More articles of note:

    Four little discussed ways that climate change could make hurricanes even worse by Chris Mooney, Energy & Environment, Washington Post, Sep 11, 2017

    How global warming could push hurricanes to new regions by Bob Berwyn, Pacific Standard, Sep 11, 2017

    'I Don't Expect The Season To Be Done': A Hurricane Expert On What's Still To Come by Kate Wheeling, Pacific Standard, Sep 12, 2017

  2. A new article with some background at Science of Doom:

    Impacts – XIV – Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change 1

    Kevin Walsh and coauthors in 2016: "At present, there is no climate theory that can predict the formation rate of tropical cyclones from the mean climate state"

    In general, relative SST (local sea surface temperature minus the tropical mean sea surface temperature) being more important than absolute SST for TC development has the weight of climate scientists behind it. 

    Climate models struggle to reproduce the more intense TCs (tropical cyclones) in the recent climate and papers come with many caveats about the difficulties of predicting the future.

  3. Another argument about gw and hurricanes is that the latter will work as a negative/damping feedback on the former, since hurricanes transfer energy out to space (among other places), and the more intense the hurricanes become, the more energy they will transfer. I'm trying to find reliable numbers to show that to the extent that this might happen, it is insignificant compared to the approximately half-million A-bombs worth of extra energy ghg's are preventing from gettin into space every day.

    I don't see this in the already-long list of denialist arguments, but maybe I missed it?

  4. wili @78,

    I did have some useful NOAA(?) numbers for the energy fluxes associated with tropical cyclones but they are not falling to hand. However there is literature that presents data. Although this is a bit less authoritative-looking, the literature (& this is from papers to hand rather than from a proper search) does seem quite definitive that hurricanes act to warm the planet rather than cool it although the mechanisms are not that simple.

    Tropical cyclones do simplistically pump energy out of the ocean which will cool the planet. They also mix warm surface waters down into the ocean which, as the post-cyclone surface is cooler and thus easier to warm, will allow ocean warming. (These hurricane-warmed ocean depths won't just sit there but will enhance poleward heat fluxes, as discussed below.) The net size of the ocean-atmosphere flux from global tropical cyclones has been assessed globally using ARGO data at +1.9PW during the passage of storms but becomes a net negative -0.3PW when subsequent enhanced warming following the storm is included. The global figures when divided between hurricanes and lesser storms shows that it is hurricanes which are responsible for the net total being negative (Net total for just hurricanes equals 0.75PW cooling = a global 1.5Wm^-2), with 0.8PW of ocean cooling during the storm but followed by 1.5PW of subsequent ocean warming. For lesser storms the net ocean cooling remains positive 1.0PW cooling during the storm with 0.6 subsequent warming. This suggests that in a world with more hurricanes but fewer less-powerful tropical storms (a possibility that many denialists deny), there will be as a result bigger heat fluxes into the oceans.

    A further mechanism for cooling the planet is that the ocean mixing caused by tropical cyclones will impact poleward heat transfer to some extent, enhancing it in the oceans, reducing it in the atmosphere. But when the effect is set up in a climate model, the impact becomes a net warming effect due to the spread of humid atmospheres and such-like. So, of the ~2ºC global warming resulting from poleward heat fluxes (which are roughly 5 PW in each direction), perhaps some 0.2ºC results from tropical cyclones and would be boosted by increased cyclone activity. (That could be equated to a climate forcing using ECS=3 of +0.25Wm^-2).

    So in terms of A-bombs, the increase in that +0.25Wm^-2 of warming from today's tropical cyclones will be small and will also be A minus.

  5. Recommended supplemental readings...

    How to talk about hurricanes now by John D Sutter, Health, CNN, Oct 10, 2018

    The Hurricanes, and Climate-Change Questions, Keep Coming. Yes, They’re Linked. by Henry Fountain, Climate, New York Times, Oct 10, 2018

    Is climate change making hurricanes worse? by Daniel Levitt & Niko Kommenda, Weather, Guardian, Oct 10, 2018

    Yes, Hurricane Michael is a climate change story by Pete Vernon, Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Oct 12, 2018

    Note: The Daniel Levitt & Niko Kommenda article include outstanding graphics. 

  6. Did anyone here respond to the recent article in Nature apparently documenting that hurricanes in the US have shown no trend, either in frequency or intensity or (the authors' index of) damage caused?

    And while I'm asking, recently published a compilation of stats on global cyclones that seems to show the same pattern so far globally. (This one NOT peer reviewed or published in maybe the most prestigious scientific journal.) 

  7. Sorry, rookie error. I refreshed the page to see if anything had changed and my browser entered my post again. And I don't see how to delete the duplicate. 


    [DB] While the moderators usually notice, should it happen again just ask for the duplicate to be removed.

  8. Norm Rubin,

    Can you link the article you are talking about so we can find it?

  9. @ Norm Rubin #82

    Here's one response to pseudo-science poppycock written by Paul Homewood and posted on the GWPF website:

    GWPF’s “Incoherent” Climate Reports Misrepresent IPCC; Chairman’s Resignation Unrelated, ClimateDenierRoundup, DailyKos, Jan 18, 2019

  10. All I can find this minute is the abstract and citation  with the full text behind Nature's paywall. I thought I'd read it  but I've never paid for a Nature subscription is the link.

    And here's a paste of the contents, FWIW:

    Nature Sustainability
    Analysis | Published: 26 November 2018

    Normalized hurricane damage in the continental United States 1900–2017
    Jessica Weinkle, Chris Landsea, […]Roger Pielke Jr
    Nature Sustainabilityvolume 1, pages808–813 (2018) | Download Citation

    Direct economic losses result when a hurricane encounters an exposed, vulnerable society. A normalization estimates direct economic losses from a historical extreme event if that same event was to occur under contemporary societal conditions. Under the global indicator framework of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the reduction of direct economic losses as a proportion of total economic activity is identified as a key indicator of progress in the mitigation of disaster impacts. Understanding loss trends in the context of development can therefore aid in assessing sustainable development. This analysis provides a major update to the leading dataset on normalized US hurricane losses in the continental United States from 1900 to 2017. Over this period, 197 hurricanes resulted in 206 landfalls with about US$2 trillion in normalized (2018) damage, or just under US$17 billion annually. Consistent with observed trends in the frequency and intensity of hurricane landfalls along the continental United States since 1900, the updated normalized loss estimates also show no trend. A more detailed comparison of trends in hurricanes and normalized losses over various periods in the twentieth century to 2017 demonstrates a very high degree of consistency.

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    NatureAbout us [clipped...] 

    I believe the item linked in post 84 is aimed at the second item I was asking about  


    [DB] A full copy is here.

  11. Norm Rubin,

    I am not an expert on hurricanes but I read some.

    Nature Sustainability is not the same journal as Nature.  It is less prestigious.

    These authors have been making this argument for a long time.  From what I have read it appears that they are in the minority but there is not a consensus on this topc.

    Analysis of USA only data seems inappropriate to me. There are not many hurricanes and the record is noisy.  The USA is only 3% of the Earth's surface.  You would expect that noise would be bigger than the signal.

    This article documents that strong hurricanes (force 4 and 5) have increased in number over the entire Earth.  They reference at least 4 other papers that find an increase in the most powerful hurricanes.  There appear to be less force 1 and 2 hurricanes so the total number of hurricanes is about the same.  There is much more signal to noise in an analysis of the entire Earth.  It stands to reason that if there are more force 4 and 5 hurricanes (which cause most of the damage), there will be more damage caused.  An analysis of world  wide damage for the past 40 years would be more meaningful than a USA only analysis with a longer record.

    The paper I cited claims that sea surface temperatures have only been elevated enough to affect hurricanes for 40 years so the earlier data in your cited paper is not as valuable.

    Jeff Masters discusses the catastrophic hurricanes that struck the USA in 2018.  He discusses modeling that attributes 50% of Florence's rainfall to warming.  Similar attribution has been made for Harvey's rainfall in Texas last year.

     To me it stands to reason that if there are more category 4 and 5 hurricanes and they produce twice as much rain due to warming than more damage will be caused by hurricanes.  There were several strong hurricanes at the start of the limited USA record analyzed in the Weinkle et al paper which affect the statistics.  

    I expect it to be a long time (decades) before the USA only record of hurricanes shows statistically significant change in hurricanes since there are so few and the record is noisy.  The worldwide record already shows increases in powerful hurricanes which cause the most damage. 

    I doubt there will be much commentary on this paper by scientists unless deniers make wild claims about it.  Since it is a valid paper if you choose to make the argument that hurricanes have not changed you can, but it is not a strong claim when the world record is examined.  The fact the US damage was so severe in 2018, after the Weinkle paper was published, is suggestive but not statistically significant yet.  

  12. Somewhat old now, but Pielke's work has been discussed over at Tamino's Open MInd in the past:

      Slightly newer discussion of hurrixcane frequency at RealClimate. The post presents some behaviour by Pielke that is, shall we say, not particularly flattering.

  13. Norm Rubin,

    The RealClimate link that Bob Loblaw has above shows that using only landfalling hurricanes reduces the available data by a factor of over 1000.  They specifically argue that this is an inappropriate method of data analysis because it allows the noise to overcome the signal.  It appears that the paper you cited has been prebunked.  I seem to have been too kind in my post.


    Thanks for the great links.  I see your posts on other sites.  Always well informed.

  14. Thanks folks, that's what I was looking for. More the science and stats part than the ad hominem stuff, since I was raised to be able to learn from a fool, and I also don't mind learning from people who are biased or sometimes wrong  I try to avoid tribalism in politics generally, and I find it especially rampant and ugly in the climate wars. 

    But it will take me a while to get through it all. 

    Just offhand, of course the US mainland is not nearly the whole world, but it's probably the part that's been keeping the best records of hurricanes for the longest. When you lose your keys in the dark, it may be smart to look first under the streetlights, type thing. Of course, of all possible statistical outcomes, a finding of no significant trend is most easily produced by a too-small sample, so I "get" the criticism. 

  15. Norm Rubin:

    Hot off the press:

    4 Climate-Influenced Disasters Cost the U.S. $53 Billion in 2018 by Daniel Cusick, E&E News/Scientific American, Jan 23, 2019

  16. GPWayne

    Thank you for the rebuttal regarding frequency of tropical storms.  Could you please comment on this 2017 article [Truchelut, R.E. and Staehling, E.M. 2017. An energetic perspective on United States tropical cyclone landfall droughts. Geophysical Research Letters 44: 12,013-12,019.] which is cited by climate skeptic websites?  It claims there was a drought of energetic hurricanes; i.e. hurricanes above a Cyclone Energy of 100 kt, from 2006 to 2015.  It also claims "a statistically significant downward trend since 1950, with the percentage of total Atlantic Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) expended over the continental U.S. at a series minimum during the recent drought period."  On the face of it, ACE sounds like a good measure of hurricane activity.

    Thanks in advance for your response

  17. "a statistically significant downward trend since 1950, with the percentage of total Atlantic Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) expended over the continental U.S. at a series minimum during the recent drought period."

    Current global ACE is 103% of normal.

    Whats Up With That???

    Denier blogs lie.  Do not trust them.

  18. Ritchieb,

    Strong hurricanes are not very common events.  The USA is only about 3% of world surface area.  You expect a lot of year to year variation in rare occurances measured over a small area.  That includes periods of lower activity.  The global trend is more very strong hurricanes (along with more weak hurricanes and less moderate hurricanes).

    From your reference: 

    "The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been extremely active both in terms of the strength of the tropical cyclones that have developed and the amount of storm activity that has occurred near the United States. This is even more notable as it comes at the end of an extended period of below normal U.S. hurricane activity, as no major (category 3 or higher) hurricanes made landfall from 2006 through 2016."

    If the deniers are claiming that there are less strong hurricanes hitting the USA because of AGW (or whatever reason they propose) they have to also note the large damages in the past three years.  I note that Hurricane Sandy was not a major hurricane when it hit New York and occured during the "Hurricane drought", along with other very damaging storms.  I doubt that New Yorkers consider 2012 a "major hurricane free" year.  In addition, hurricane forward speed has decreased worldwide causing much greater flooding (like Harvy, Barry and TS Imelda).  That appears to be AGW linked.  

    Scientifically it is interesting to seek explainations for unusual events. Random chance is the best explaination for this issue.

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