MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA--It's not every day one can witness the inception of a new field. Researchers attending the 27th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology late last month* got their usual diet of potential vorticity analyses and Madden-Julian oscillations. But they also debated a newborn science created to assess whether tropical cyclones--variously called hurricanes, typhoons, or cyclones--have strengthened under global warming.
Until Science and Nature published two papers last year contending that tropical cyclones around the world had strengthened, few scientists paid much attention to long-term variations in such storms. In those papers, a couple of academic meteorologists took the long view of tropical cyclone records compiled day-by-day by weather forecasters. From those weather records, the meteorologists extracted storm climatologies, statistical histories of storm behavior that could be searched for any change over the decades. Unexpectedly, they found a surge in tropical cyclone intensity--and if it continued under global warming, they concluded, it would noticeably amplify the destruction in coming decades. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, those analyses were enough to spark a highly public and sometimes raucous new field: hurricane climatology.