The next time the natural disaster du jour is pronounced “Super” or “the worst ever” step back and take a deep breath. Odds are it is nothing of the sort.
Unless you have been living in one of the few truly remote areas of the planet, you have been exposed to them. Climate change memes that pass from person to person and are repeated without thought or critical examination. They range from the subtle—bad weather is being increased by global warming—to the banal—over 97% of scientists agree about climate change. We are bombarded with these unsubstantiated ideas over and over again, from talking heads on TV, newspaper headlines, our friends and even the president of the United States. They are blatant untruths that have become legitimized by repetition, until school children and adults alike patriot them to each other. The recent tropical cyclone, Haiyan, has triggered another round of meme infection: it was the worst storm in history, tropical storms are getting bigger every year, there are more storms every year, and, of course, they are all caused by global warming. Trouble is, these “facts” are all false.
The Urban Dictionary website defines a meme as: a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable. One example of such a mind virus can be found in the insistence by many, scientists and non-scientists alike, that tropical storms can be attributed to global warming. According to the meme there are more tropical storms today and they are stronger than in the past, all because of global warming. So pervasive has this idea become that it is mindlessly repeated by news reporters, talk show hosts and politicians alike. Recent events provide proof of this thought infestation.
Over the past weekend, as Haiyan’s furry was unleashed on the Philippines, reporters across the globe scrambled for superlatives. While there is no doubt that Haiyan, at its peak a full category 5 tropical cyclone (TC), was a dangerous and atypical storm, the amount of hype generated by news reporters was breathtaking. The BBC, more reserved than most, declared, “Monster typhoon Haiyan roars across Philippines.” They arguably got the particulars right by labeling Haiyan “one of the strongest typhoons ever to hit land.”
The Australian’s headline screamed “Super Typhoon Haiyan tears Philippines apart!” In America, National Public Radio and CNN repeated the super typhoon meme. Dana Perino, a panelist on FOX News’ talk show, The Five, pronounce it the worst storm in recorded history. Ms. Perino, normally a very sensible, level headed commentator on American politics, illustrates what happens to even the most thoughtful people when they venture outside their areas of expertise. Her colleague, leftist Bob Beckel’s response was more typical: “Ask the people of the Philippines how they feel about global warming now!”
Again, it is not that this storm was not fearsome or that the devastation it caused was not a human calamity of the first order, just that the overly excited chattering class has inadvertently handed the climate change cabal another chance to sow disinformation. Statements that the “Super Typhoon” was “off the charts” played right into the climate change meme that storms are getting stronger because of global warming. One reporter stated “it is thought to be the strongest storm to ever make landfall anywhere in the world in modern records.” I guess that would be true if those modern records did not extend back beyond 2006.
Devastation in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City, Leyte, Philippines.
Storm intensity is measured by central pressure, the atmospheric pressure at the core of a cyclone. The lower the core preasure, the more intense the storm. Haiyan, at its peak, was measured at 895 hPa (hectopascals). In the North Atlantic, Hurricane Wilma, in 2005, was measured at 882. You have to go back to 1979’s Typhoon Tip, to find the most intense storm ever recorded in the Western North Pacific—it pulled 870 hPa and tops the list of all time most intense storms. In fact, when compared to that region’s list of most intense storms, Haiyan ties with a clutch of other storms—most recently Yuri in 1991—for an ignominious 21st place. Not only was Haiyan not the most intense storm ever seen, it’s not even in the running.
But then the news media never lets facts get in the way of a good story. Remember “Super Storm” Sandy? The only thing super about Sandy was the opportunity it provided the major US news networks to capture it on video. Barely a category 1 storm, it hit a part of the US that had not experienced such a storm in decades, and hence had no frame of reference. My brother, who lives in Florida, where much stronger storms occur more frequently, dismissed the northerners as a bunch of wimps. But the true damage was done by the prominent know nothings who immediately linked that storm with other recent unfavoriable environmental episodes.
We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and act before it’s too late.
That scientifically ignorant talking head was President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address. As stated in a recent news article in Science, “there is little or no evidence that global warming steered Sandy into New Jersey or made the storm any stronger.”
What is the science regarding storm intensity and increasing frequency? There is no doubt that storm damage costs are rising, but is that because there are more people and property in the paths of destructive weather events? In other words, are there more storms or more targets? There was an explicit attempt to find any anthropologically induced trend in tropical cyclones in apaper by Jessica Weinkle et al., published in the AMS Journal of Climate. Here is the paper’s abstract:
In recent decades, economic damage from tropical cyclones (TCs) around the world has increased dramatically. Scientiﬁc literature published to date ﬁnds that the increase in losses can be explained entirely by societal changes (such as increasing wealth, structures, population, etc.) in locations prone to tropical cyclone landfalls, rather than by changes in annual storm frequency or intensity. However, no homogenized dataset of global tropical cyclone landfalls has been created that might serve as a consistency check for such economic normalization studies. Using currently available historical TC best-track records, a global database focused on hurricane-force strength landfalls was constructed. The analysis does not indicate signiﬁcant long-period global or individual basin trends in the frequency or intensity of landfalling TCs of minor or major hurricane strength. The evidence in this study provides strong support for the conclusion that increasing damage around the world during the past several decades can be explained entirely by increasing wealth in locations prone to TC landfalls, which adds conﬁdence to the ﬁdelity of economic normalization analyses.
The authors examined landfalls in ﬁve global development regions that have significant tropical cyclone activity: the North Atlantic (NATL), northeastern Paciﬁc (EPAC), western North Paciﬁc (WPAC), northern Indian Ocean (NIO), and the Southern Hemisphere (SH). This was done using the most recent version of the International Best Track Archive for Climate Stewardship, which compiles TC intensity and location data. To get some idea of the volume of data being talked about, tracking maps for the various regions are shown below.
“We have identiﬁed considerable interannual variability in the frequency of global hurricane landfalls,” the authors state, “but within the resolution of the available data, our evidence does not support the presence of signiﬁcant long-period global or individual basin linear trends for minor, major, or total hurricanes within the period(s) covered by the available quality data.” That is rather unequivocal—there is no trend, increasing or otherwise. This is clearly shown in the graph below.
There is a lot of variation from year to year, which gives our notoriously spotty memories time to forget the last big storm. Combine this with rising property damage assessments and the stage is set for breathless news commentators to pronounce each new storm a “Super Storm.”
Here is how Weinkle et al. summarize their findings:
While there is continued uncertainty surrounding future changes in climate (Knutson et al. 2010), current projections of TC frequency or intensity change may not yield an anthropogenic signal in economic loss data for many decades or even centuries (Crompton et al. 2011). Thus, our quantitative analysis of global hurricane land-falls is consistent with previous research focused on normalized losses associated with hurricanes that have found no trends once data are properly adjusted for societal factors.
According to Richard Kerr at Science, establishing cause and effect between extreme weather and climate change is not only scientifically suspect, it may also be a risky strategy for persuading the public to take climate change seriously. “What disturbs me is assigning anything that comes along to global warming,” says professor emeritus of meteorology John M. Wallace of the University of Washington, Seattle. “That may work in the short run, but I don’t think that kind of conversion has staying power.” Indeed, surveys coming out on the 1-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall (29 October) show the concerns about hurricanes that spiked in the wake of the disaster have nearly faded away. No doubt, Haiyan will cause another temporary uptick.