Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Publication Date
5 February 2024

The growing inadequacy of an open-ended Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale in a warming world



Global warming increases available sensible and latent heat energy, increasing the thermodynamic potential wind intensity of tropical cyclones (TCs). Supported by theory, observations, and modeling, this causes a shift in mean TC intensity, which tends to manifest most clearly at the greatest intensities. The Saffir–Simpson scale for categorizing damage based on the wind intensity of TCs was introduced in the early 1970s and remains the most commonly used metric for public communication of the level of wind hazard that a TC poses. Because the scale is open-ended and does not extend beyond category 5 (70 m/s windspeed or greater), the level of wind hazard conveyed by the scale remains constant regardless of how far the intensity extends beyond 70 m/s. This may be considered a weakness of the scale, particularly considering that the destructive potential of the wind increases exponentially. Here, we consider how this weakness becomes amplified in a warming world by elucidating the past and future increases of peak wind speeds in the most intense TCs. A simple extrapolation of the Saffir–Simpson scale is used to define a hypothetical category 6, and we describe the frequency of TCs, both past and projected under global warming, that would fall under this category. We find that a number of recent storms have already achieved this hypothetical category 6 intensity and based on multiple independent lines of evidence examining the highest simulated and potential peak wind speeds, more such storms are projected as the climate continues to warm.

Wehner, Michael F., and James P. Kossin. 2024. “The Growing Inadequacy Of An Open-Ended Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale In A Warming World”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences 121 (7). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.2308901121.
Funding Program Area(s)
Additional Resources:
NERSC (National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center)