Earth-Atmosphere Interactions: Tropical Storm and Hurricane Activity in the Caribbean and Consequent Health Impacts

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The strong winds and intense rainfall associated with tropical storms can cause both short- and long-term health effects. Destruction or damage of roads, bridges, and hospitals hampers efforts to provide immediate medical services to individuals directly impacted by the tropical storms. Depending on the region, health services cannot be timely provided to take care of personal injuries such as puncture wounds, lacerations, strains, and bone fractures often resulting from the sheer force and impact of tropical storms (Schultz et al., 2005). Trauma is another major health concern associated with hurricanes (WHO, 2008). In addition, individuals suffering from of chronic diseases (e.g., diabetes, asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular illnesses) experience disruptions in their medical attention. The lack of fresh water for consumption, cleaning, and cooking can cause major health hazards including gastrointestinal illness. In the aftermath of tropical storms, environmental conditions are conducive to the spread of acute and infectious diseases. For example, freestanding water on the surface for prolonged periods of time can become the breeding grounds of mosquitoes that in turn can serve as vectors to carry diseases among the population. Although outbreaks of epidemic-prone diseases such as cholera occur after extensive flooding (Schultz et al., 2005), the endemic potential for epidemics of cholera and other tropical diseases depend on the response of local and international health providers. Individuals unable to evacuate hurricane-impacted areas because of underlying illnesses might be more susceptible to infectious disease. When evacuees are relocated to evacuation centers, crowding and unsanitary conditions can amplify transmission of infectious disease. As documented in this article, in regions such as the Caribbean hurricanes are yearly occurrences. Therefore, health providers need to devise and implement strategies to minimize the health impacts on vulnerable communities. In addition, experience gained from previous storm-related disasters can allow health workers prepare for the demands of their services. Furthermore, pre-hurricane preparations can reduce the post-hurricane burden on health-care systems. Both health providers and meteorologists need to coordinate activates to minimize the impacts of tropical storms on human health.

The health effects enumerated above can change from year to year due to the variability in tropical storm activity. Long-term changes to the global climate as a result of anthropogenic impacts have been mooted, including changes in the global frequencies and intensities of tropical cyclones. Understanding the drivers of these changes and the potential consequences for regional tropical cyclone climates allows policy makers and health providers to consider revisions to their long-term planning. While they may not want to change their strategies while so much remains uncertain for regional projections, building in flexibility into long-term plans facilitates adaptability to possible future climates. With this in mind, we have reviewed the sources of tropical cyclone variations in the current climate and then explored possible changes to these storms in the Caribbean due to global warming. We have found that the dominant factors affecting tropical cyclone viability are ocean temperatures and environmental influences due to other weather systems: warm ocean conditions facilitate and large changes in winds with height inhibit tropical cyclone formation and increases in their winds and rain. These temperature and wind patterns are affected from year-to-year and decade-to-decade by the global ENSO phenomenon, the basin-wide NAO, and their interactions. All of these factors are evident in the historical records of tropical cyclone activity in the Caribbean, although the western and eastern regions have somewhat different histories.

Since global climate models have much more skill at reproducing “big picture” phenomena (IPCC, 2007a and b), we have explored changes in ENSO, ocean temperatures and wind shear foreshadowed by these models as a way of inferring likely changes to the Caribbean tropical cyclone climate. The most likely (although still uncertain) change in global patterns is for more frequent ENSO events. This would result in a decrease in North Atlantic tropical cyclone numbers and a shift in average hurricane track locations. Interactions between ENSO and the NAO seem to modulate Caribbean tropical cyclones (Giannini et al., 2001), so while Caribbean storm numbers may decrease over time, this decrease will probably be smaller than the decrease in storm numbers over the remainder of the basin. Finally, we cannot forget interannual variability: even with a decrease in the mean number of Caribbean tropical cyclones, there will still be active years.

Ocean temperatures in the Caribbean will likely increase, providing a driver for more intense tropical cyclones (Emanuel, 2006). However, changes in other weather systems mean that the vertical wind shear in the tropical cyclone environment will also be stronger, and so will inhibit tropical cyclone intensity (Vecchi and Soden, 2007). Even with all of the caveats and uncertainties expressed here, a policymaker would be wise to consider planning strategies that allow for the possibility of more intense tropical cyclones and higher sea levels leading to more storm surge inundation: insurance for societal resilience.


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Figure 1. Satellite montage showing the track of Hurricane Georges (1998) as it passed through the Caribbean, making landfall on many islands. Image developed by researchers at CIMSS (Cooperative Institute of Meteorological Satellite Studies) and available from

nhc caribbean region with breakpoints

Figure 2. Caribbean region (10-27.5N, 57.5-85W) as used in the present study. In this study, we partition the region into western (west of 68W) and eastern Caribbean as indicated on the map. Red symbols are breakpoints used by the US National Hurricane Center (NHC). Graphic is courtesy of National Hurricane Center (NHC).

fig 2a largerareatrajectories_since1900normalratiomap

fig 2a largerareatrajectories_since1900normalratiolegend



fig 2e largerareatrajectories_since1900throughwest_category1normalratio

fig 2b largerareatrajectories_since1900througheast_category1normalratio

fig 2f largerareatrajectories_since1900throughwest_category2normalratio

fig 2c largerareatrajectories_since1900througheast_category2normalratio

fig 2g largerareatrajectories_since1900throughwest_category3normalratio

fig 2d largerareatrajectories_since1900througheast_category3normalratio

Figure 3. Tracks of tropical cyclones (TC) over the entire North Atlantic basin 1900-2009 (top); tropical cyclones occurring between 1900-1979 (the pre-satellite era) are plotted in grey. Tracks of TC occurring after 1979 are color coded based on their maximum intensity as they passed through the Caribbean as follows: weaker (tropical storm or category 1 hurricane) systems (blue); TC of at least category 2 intensity (red); and storms that had no impact in the Caribbean (green). Track ranges for TC+ category 1, category 2 and category 3-5 storms (going down) for the western and eastern Caribbean are plotted in the left and right columns respectively. The solid line is the mean track for the category and the dash lines bound the 95th percentile.







Figure 4. Storm track envelopes for months that are climatologically most likely to have TC impact on the Caribbean. Images courtesy of the US National Hurricane Center and available from

fig 6 wrfout_nnrpinput_peakwspsince1980at10mjuststormdaysincarribeannormalratio

Figure 5. Map of the strongest surface wind speed at each location for days when a tropical storm was in the Caribbean basin. Wind speed is in meters per second (1 m s-1 = 2.2 mph); tropical storms have winds exceeding 17 m s-1 (yellow) and hurricanes exceed 33 m s-1 (purple). Winds plotted here are from a computer analysis of the observed winds that leads to smoothing of these winds; thus all values here represent lower bounds on the actual winds experienced at a given location.

fig 5a wrfout_nnrpinput_sstheight1000hpa_averlargerareanobackgroudnormalratio

c:\documents and settings\evans\my documents\papers\2011-fuentes-evans-hamilton-j. race & policy\fuentes-etal figs\fig 8b wrfout_nnrpinput_sstheight1000hpa_averlargerarea2normalratio.png

Figure 6. Analysis of tropical cyclones impacting the Caribbean basin in the 30-year period 1980-2009: (a) storm tracks; and (b) the tropical cyclone environment averaged over all August-September-October (ASO) 3-month periods in 1980-2009. Ocean surface temperature is shaded (C), surface pressure is contoured (units of millibars) and average surface winds are drawn as vectors (i.e., arrows).

sal hurricane erin 2001
Figure 7. Satellite map showing the interaction between the dust layer associated with a Saharan Air Layer (SAL) event and Hurricane Erin (2001). Image originally published in Evans (2010). The operational product depicted here is documented in the paper by Dunion and Velden (2004) and is available from


c:\documents and settings\evans\my documents\papers\2011-fuentes-evans-hamilton-j. race & policy\fuentes-etal figs\fig6a.gif

c:\documents and settings\evans\my documents\papers\2011-fuentes-evans-hamilton-j. race & policy\fuentes-etal figs\fig6b.gif

Figure 8. Analyses of annual tropical cyclone activity: (a) Annual tropical cyclone frequency for 1900-2009 in the western (blue) and eastern (red) Caribbean regions and the remainder of the North Atlantic basin (green). TCs impacting both western and eastern Caribbean domains are attributed to the first region they entered and so are only counted once. The total for each year is represented by the three colors combined. Bottom panels are the probability distributions of annual tropical cyclone frequency for the western (left) and eastern (right) Caribbean.

c:\documents and settings\evans\my documents\papers\2011-fuentes-evans-hamilton-j. race & policy\fuentes-etal figs\fig 10a wrfout_nnrpinput_largerareatrajectories_ensoyearssince1980bluenormalratio.png

c:\documents and settings\evans\my documents\papers\2011-fuentes-evans-hamilton-j. race & policy\fig 8b caribbean environment average.png

c:\documents and settings\evans\my documents\papers\2011-fuentes-evans-hamilton-j. race & policy\fuentes-etal figs\fig 10c cf 8b wrfout_nnrpinput_sstpmsl_ensoyearssince1980normalratio.png

Figure 9. Focus on the Caribbean: (a) tracks of all TCs impacting the Caribbean restricted only to ENSO years (Table 1) within the period 1980-2009; and (b) ocean surface temperature (shaded; C), and surface pressure (contours; millibars) averaged over the August-September-October (ASO) 3-month periods for the same set of ENSO years listed in Table 1. (c) as in (b), but for the entire North Atlantic basin.

evans fig7new.gif

Figure 10. Decadal tropical cyclone activity for 1900-2009 in (a) western and (b) eastern Caribbean regions. The number of years in each decade designated as ENSO events is indicated by the line with the scale on the right axis (Table 1).


Table 1. ENSO years within the period 1950-2009 used to compile the statistics in Fig 10. Years from 1980 forward were used for the composites depicted in Fig. 9. ENSO years designated as “strong” are indicated in bold, while italics signify “moderate” ENSO events.


Years used in ENSO diagnostics



























Table 2. Projected changes in tropical cyclones across the globe associated with a warming of the climate. The IPCC expresses confidence in their projections. Their terminology equating to probability of occurrence is explained in the text (section 5.1). Confidence in projections for global changes in tropical cyclone characteristics ranges from medium to likely as listed in this table. A GCM refers to high-resolution atmospheric global climate models; these models do not have direct ocean feedbacks.

Increase in peak wind intensities likely

Over most tropical cyclone areas (based upon high-resolution AGCM and embedded hurricane model projections)

Increase in mean and peak precipitation intensities likely

Over most tropical cyclone areas (based upon high-resolution AGCM and embedded hurricane model projections)

Changes in frequency of occurrence medium confidence

Decrease in number of weak storms, increase in number of strong storms (based upon some high-resolution AGCM projections)

Globally averaged decrease in number, but specific regional changes dependent on sea surface temperature change (based upon several climate model projections)

Possible increase over the North Atlantic (based on the studies of Sugi et al. 2002 and Oouchi et al. 2006)

1 Tropical cyclones occurring outside the North Atlantic or eastern North Pacific basins are classified by other regional tropical cyclone warning centers.

2 Hurricane categories are defined in the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, first developed in the 1950s by Herb Saffir, an engineer, and Bob Simpson, then Director of the National Hurricane Laboratory.

3 Warm ocean conditions, thunderstorm activity and winds nearly constant with height.

4 Spatial footprint of ocean basin or even global scales; timescales of years or longer.

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