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date: 29 April 2017

The Global Climatology of Tropical Cyclones

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Tropical cyclones, also known as hurricanes or typhoons, are one of the most violent weather phenomena on the planet, posing significant threats to those living near or along coastlines, where tropical cyclone-related impacts are most pronounced. About 80 tropical cyclones form annually; a rate that has been remarkably steady over the period of reliable historical record and that continues to mystify climate scientists. Roughly two thirds of these storms form in the Northern Hemisphere, from about June to November, while the remaining one third form in the Southern Hemisphere during the months of November through May. Our understanding of the global and regional spatial patterns, the year-to-year variability, and temporal trends of these storms has improved considerably since the advent of meteorological satellites in the 1960s, owing to advances in both remote sensing technology and operational analysis procedures. That said, the well-recognized spatial patterns of tropical cyclone formation and tracks were laid out in a series of seminal papers in the late 1960s and 1970s and remain an accurate sketch even to this day. Concerning the year-to-year variability of tropical cyclone frequency, the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has by far the most dominant influence across multiple ocean basins; so much so that it is typically used as the main predictor for statistical forecasts of seasonal tropical cyclone activity. ENSO has a modulating influence on atmospheric circulation patterns, even in regions remote to the tropical Pacific, which, in turn, can act to enhance or inhibit tropical cyclone formation.

While the meteorological and climate community has come a long way in our understanding of the global and regional climatological features of tropical cyclones, as well as some aspects of how the climate influences these features, we are still hindered by temporal inconsistencies within the historical record of storm data; particularly pertaining to tropical cyclone intensity. Despite recent efforts to homogenize the historical record using satellite-derived intensity data back to the early 1980s, the relatively short period makes it difficult to discern secular trends due to anthropogenic climate change from natural trends occurring on decadal and multidecadal time scales.