This simple question is probably one of the hardest to answer in all of climate science. Despite over 100 years of hurricane records, and fifty years of satellite-based data, researchers are just starting to get a picture of how the most dangerous weather events on the planet behave as temperatures rise.
And unfortunately, there is still much obfuscation out there that must be dealt with.
Given what we know about hurricanes — that they rely on warm tropical water as an energy supply, among other things — we might think that more storms are on the way. Makes sense. And indeed, a new paper posted on Arxiv.org argues from a mathematical standpoint that hurricanes have been on the rise since the 1960's, and could jump by a factor of eleven if the world warms 2 degrees centigrade, as many climate models suggest is possible well before the end of the century.
It's a staggering possibility that would leave much of the tropical world in a state of near-constant pummeling from storms. Areas further from the tropics would also also get a regular dose of disaster.
Good thing it's almost certainly wrong. The Arxiv study, which was written up in MIT's Technology Review today, measures only two parameters for storms since 1960: latitude and sea surface temperature at the time they formed.
The latest understanding of hurricanes is that almost the opposite is true: storms may actually decline in frequency as the planet warms, even as they grow in strength.
A finding like this highlights the complexity of understanding how hurricanes form and behave over warm waters. In fact, Gabriel Vecchi of NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory told Discovery News that correlating hurricanes to ocean temperature has been tried several times in the past, and does NOT explain why the storms form the way they do. He writes:
Hurricane (tropical cyclone) frequency is controlled by more than just local sea surface temperature, and theoretical, statistical and high-resolution dynamical modeling studies indicate that the simplistic statistical framework developed here is not applicable to future climates.
Trying to understand hurricane behavior and predict it in the future is an incredibly difficult exercise; scientists have just begun to feel like they are capable of dabbling in it. And there are piles of misinformation that the average person has to contend with who doesn't understand what "high-resolution dynamical modeling" is.
When studies emerge dredging up old ideas and otherwise respectable news organizations run around touting them as "A Frightening New Law of Hurricane Formation," nobody wins.
Source: Technology Review