Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricanes and Climate? Data, Shmata

I am going to paste in a response I just posted on Facebook to a buddy I haven't seen in a while. I'm giving no context, but you'll figure it out:

Ben: To your first point, well said. I will answer those questions, provide links, and then tap the proverbial mat (but pls respond back if you'd like). To both of our credit, we've already broken the Unwritten Rule of Internet Debating (by going a full round of back-and-forth without either of us resorting to an ad hominem or straw man teardown of what the other person is saying). From Roger Pielke, Environmental Science Prof at UC-Boulder: "While it's hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane "drought." The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century." From NOAA's National Hurricane Center (dated to the mid-1990s, but longitudinal data is still relevant: "In summary, contrary to many expectations that globally tropical cyclones may be becoming more frequent and/or more intense due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, regionally the Atlantic basin has in recent decades seen a significant trend of fewer intense hurricanes and weaker cyclones overall. In addition, the maximum intensity reached in each year has shown no appreciable change." As for dollar-value-as-proxy, in some areas like Florida, in-migration and coastal buildup account for big changes in the value of whatever would be in a hurricane's path. From Pielke: "There are more people and more wealth in harm's way. Partly this is due to local land-use policies, partly to incentives such as government-subsidized insurance, but mostly to the simple fact that people like being on the coast and near rivers." For population-stable areas like greater NYC, it's less about in-migration than it is about land and property value. [sound of hand tapping a mat] If you are ever in Boston and have some time, drop me a would be great to catch up.

So that's what I said.  I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not (i.e. climate expert).  I also won't deny that man-made activity can make storms worse (how much of Katrina's impact could've been blunted if all those wetlands had still been there?) BUT for all the people who are spouting off about "increased frequency and strength" of hurricanes, there are some pesky facts that could get in their way.

My late great boss Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to love to say, "Everyone is entitled to his opinion.  But everyone is not entitled to his facts."

Should we be concerned about greenhouse gases?  Yes.  Should we worry about beach erosion?  Of course.  Do human actions impact the world around us?  All the time.

Sandy was a terrible storm.  So were Carol, Hazel, and Diane, all of which hit the East Coast between 1954 and 1955...and would've caused twice as much damage than Sandy had they hit today.  So when you hear someone yapping today about "The New Normal" in reference to bad storms along the U.S. East Coast, you might consider stopping and asking if he or she prefers the Old Normal.  


kad barma said...

"Twice the damage"??? Did I miss the recent construction of the AC boardwalk in the last half of the 20th century or something? Or the digging of a whole bunch of new Manhattan subway tunnels?

Sandy's storm surge was unprecedented, and exacerbated to whatever small degree by higher ocean levels. It's relevant to use it as the example of what against which it might be necessary to guard. I think you're on thin ice to counsel a "law of large numbers", statistician's approach, when so many of the environmental factors now in 2012 are changed from 60 years ago. It is possible to observe an increase in the volatility of global weather patterns. It is foolish to dismiss it as anomalous without examining it further. Using two "hundred year" weather incidents hitting the same area within a little more than a year of each other as an impetus for that is not unreasonable.

C R Krieger said...

I tend to give Greg's ideas some consideration.  Sandy came at a confluence of events and hit at just the right place and time to be a problem.  But it was a CAT 1 hurricane.

A question that occurred to me recently concerns pinpointing the Golden Era of Climate.  I doubt it was the 1950s.  At least in South Jersey there were a lot of hurricanes.  And there was smog in those days.

Back when folks used to ice skate on the Thames?

Back further, to when the Vikings were making it to North America and selling farmland in Greenland?

Someone suggested 8000 to 4000 BC.

I think that to the degree there is climate change, as there has always been, it is an engineering issue.

I think I prefer CAGW to its doppelgänger, a new ice age.

Either way, the big challenge is protecting the less fortunate across the globe (last night a Democratic Party speech writer accused me of being a flat earther).

Regards  —  Cliff

JoeS said...

Let's start with the observation:
"In summary, contrary to many expectations that globally tropical cyclones may be becoming more frequent and/or more intense due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases..."

There seems to be an implicit acknowledgement of "increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases". Is that accepted? If so, that is one basis for concern, and a likely increase in solar energy trapped by the atmosphere.

Whether or not it leads to more severe and frequent hurricanes is debatable, as supported by the post. However, let's look at Sandy - sure it was "only" a category 1 hurricane, but it came in late October. And its life was extended during the trip north by unusually high sea surface temperatures, in excess of 80 degrees F when it crossed the Gulf Stream off the mid-Atlantic coast. That is more important to the discussion than the actual intensity of the hurricane.

My 4-yr old grandson asked me which planet was the hottest. I responded that I thought it would be Mercury, as it was the closest to the Sun. "No" he said, "it is Venus because its greenhouse gases capture more of the Sun's energy".

I am glad he is aware of the science as it is his future that will be affected if we don't take the issue seriously.