That's why, despite expectations that global warming will make hurricanes stronger—as well as massive societal consequences if more powerful storms are slamming coastlines—scientific authorities like the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have demurred on the hurricane/climate question. Most recently, the IPCC earlier this year said it had "low confidence" that global warming is worsening hurricanes.
That's the surprising solution that the scientists implemented in their paper. Data that was too "good"—for instance, because the satellite images were too high in resolution—was degraded to what Kossin calls the "lowest common denominator": one satellite image of each storm taken every three hours, with a pixel size no higher than 8 kilometers by 8 kilometers. Using this technique, Kossin and his colleagues at NCDC created a 28-year record of storm images across the world's seven hurricane basins, from 1982 to 2009. Then they used a computer algorithm to compute each storm's maximum strength, removing human error and unpredictability from the equation.
The result? The scientists found that globally, hurricane wind speeds are increasing at a rate of a little over 2 mph/decade, or just over 6 mph over the entire period. There are some key caveats, though, the biggest being that the trend they found was not statistically significant at usually accepted levels (for nerds: the p value was 0.1). But there were strong and significant trends in some hurricane basins of the world, especially the North Atlantic (the region encompassing the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and open Atlantic north of the equator), where storms have been strengthening at the rate of nearly 9 mph/decade (see chart above). But other basins offset that, including the Western North Pacific, which showed a negative trend.
The punchline, then, could hardly be called overwhelming. But as Kossin explains, that may be precisely what you expect to see once you're finally analyzing the troublesome hurricane data reliably. These results, after all, are quite consistent with the idea that the signal of hurricane intensification might be just now emerging from the "noise" of natural climate variability. "What we're observing could very easily fit into an assumption of this greenhouse gas forced trend in the tropics and the effect that it has on tropical cyclone intensity," says Kossin.
Perhaps the best news is that if scientists continue adding to the new database of homogenized satellite images—starting with the years 2010-2013, which were not part of this study—the chance of finding a significant trend (or showing that there just isn't one to be found) will increase. "I think every year, we'll get a little bit closer to the truth," says Kossin.
At that point, perhaps we can finally can leave the sound and fury to the hurricanes themselves, rather than the debate over what's happening to them.