Last updated September 29, 2021

Global increase in major tropical cyclone exceedance probability over the past four decades

Study key findings

  • Global warming has increased the chances of storms reaching Category 3 or higher.
  • The analysis, of satellite images dating to 1979, shows that warming has increased the likelihood of a hurricane developing into a major one of Category 3 or higher, with sustained winds greater than 110 miles an hour, by about 8 percent a decade.

We’ve just increased our confidence of our understanding of the link between hurricane intensity and climate change. We have high confidence that there is a human fingerprint on these changes.

James Kossin, the lead author of the new study and a researcher with NOAA and the University of Wisconsin

Study abstract

Theoretical understanding of the thermodynamic controls on tropical cyclone (TC) wind intensity, as well as numerical simulations, implies a positive trend in TC intensity in a warming world. The global instrumental record of TC intensity, however, is known to be heterogeneous in both space and time and is generally unsuitable for global trend analysis. To address this, a homogenized data record based on satellite data was previously created for the period 1982–2009. The 28-y homogenized record exhibited increasing global TC intensity trends, but they were not statistically significant at the 95% confidence level. Based on observed trends in the thermodynamic mean state of the tropical environment during this period, however, it was argued that the 28-y period was likely close to, but shorter than, the time required for a statistically significant positive global TC intensity trend to appear. Here the homogenized global TC intensity record is extended to the 39-y period 1979–2017, and statistically significant (at the 95% confidence level) increases are identified. Increases and trends are found in the exceedance probability and proportion of major (Saffir−Simpson categories 3 to 5) TC intensities, which is consistent with expectations based on theoretical understanding and trends identified in numerical simulations in warming scenarios. Major TCs pose, by far, the greatest threat to lives and property. Between the early and latter halves of the time period, the major TC exceedance probability increases by about 8% per decade, with a 95% CI of 2 to 15% per decade.