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Publication Date
7 August 2023

Near-term tropical cyclone risk and coupled Earth system model biases



Most current climate models predict that the equatorial Pacific will evolve under greenhouse gas–induced warming to a more El Niño-like state over the next several decades, with a reduced zonal sea surface temperature gradient and weakened atmospheric Walker circulation. Yet, observations over the last 50 y show the opposite trend, toward a more La Niña-like state. Recent research provides evidence that the discrepancy cannot be dismissed as due to internal variability but rather that the models are incorrectly simulating the equatorial Pacific response to greenhouse gas warming. This implies that projections of regional tropical cyclone activity may be incorrect as well, perhaps even in the direction of change, in ways that can be understood by analogy to historical El Niño and La Niña events: North Pacific tropical cyclone projections will be too active, North Atlantic ones not active enough, for example. Other perils, including severe convective storms and droughts, will also be projected erroneously. While it can be argued that these errors are transient, such that the models’ responses to greenhouse gases may be correct in equilibrium, the transient response is relevant for climate adaptation in the next several decades. Given the urgency of understanding regional patterns of climate risk in the near term, it would be desirable to develop projections that represent a broader range of possible future tropical Pacific warming scenarios—including some in which recent historical trends continue—even if such projections cannot currently be produced using existing coupled earth system models. 

Sobel, Adam H., Chia-Ying Lee, Steven G. Bowen, Suzana J. Camargo, Mark A. Cane, Amy Clement, Boniface Fosu, et al. 2023. “Near-Term Tropical Cyclone Risk And Coupled Earth System Model Biases”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences 120 (33). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.2209631120.
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