Abstract

Globally, on the order of 100 tropical cyclones (TCs) occur annually, yet the processes that control this number remain unknown. Here we test a simple hypothesis that this number is limited by the geography of thermodynamic environments favorable for TC formation and maintenance. First, climatologies of TC potential intensity and environmental ventilation are created from reanalyses and are used in conjunction with historical TC data to define the spatiotemporal geography of favorable environments. Based on a range of predefined separation distances, the geographic domain of environmental favorability is populated with randomly placed TCs assuming a fixed minimum separation distance to achieve a maximum daily packing density of storms. Inclusion of a fixed storm duration yields an annual “maximum potential genesis” (MPG) rate, which is found to be an order of magnitude larger than the observed rate on Earth. The mean daily packing density captures the seasonal cycle reasonably well for both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, though it substantially overestimates TC counts outside of each hemisphere’s active seasons. Interannual variability in MPG is relatively small and is poorly correlated with annual storm count globally and across basins, though modest positive correlations are found in the North Atlantic and east Pacific basins. Overall, the spatiotemporal distribution of favorable environmental conditions appears to strongly modulate the seasonal cycle of TCs, which certainly strongly influences the TC climatology, though it does not explicitly constrain the global annual TC count. Our methodology provides the first estimate of an upper bound for annual TC frequency and outlines a framework for assessing how local and large-scale factors may act to limit global TC count below the maximum potential values found here.

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