Sea surface temperature in the tropical North Atlantic has been shown to co-vary with hurricane activity on a broad range of time-scales. One general hypothesis for this observed relationship is based on the theory of potential intensity (PI) whereby the local ambient environment determines the maximum intensity that a hurricane can achieve. Under this theory, climate change and resultant changes in PI can affect the distribution of hurricane intensities by modulating the upper extreme values. Indeed, PI averaged over the tropical North Atlantic during the hurricane season has been increasing in concert with sea surface temperature, which introduces an expectation for a secular upward shift in the distribution of hurricane intensities. However, hurricane tracks also largely determine the local storm-ambient environment and thus track variability introduces additional ambient PI variability. Here we show that this additional variance removes the observed secular trend in mean summertime tropical North Atlantic PI, and there is no tacit expectation that hurricanes have become stronger based solely on PI theory. The observed trends in integrated metrics such as hurricane power dissipation are then more likely to be caused by changes in storm frequency and duration due to broader scale regional variability than secular intensity changes due solely to ambient thermodynamics.
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