Global Warming – Fewer Extreme Weather Events
When hurricanes make landfall they bring with them destruction and tragic loss of life. Hurricane Harvey and Irma are recent examples of the devastation hurricanes can cause. Fortunately, there are fewer hurricanes than they used to be, and they’re less severe. In fact, most extreme weather events – things like floods, drought and tornadoes – happen less often now than they did before.
This is a turn of events that is surprising to many. A decade or so ago many prominent activists and experts predicted these extreme weather events would be stronger and more frequent as global warming caused the climate to change.
Even more recently, Al Gore – climate change activist and former U.S. vice president – said that “every night on the news now, practically, is like a nature hike through the book of Revelations.”
But when scientists count today’s hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc., and compare them to past decades, they find we have fewer today than we did back then. The span from 2005 to 2017 marked the longest stretch in history without a category 3 hurricane making landfall in the U.S. We recently shattered the record for fewest tornadoes in a 12-month period. There are fewer wildfires now than at any time since at least the 1950s.
There may be fewer hurricanes that reach U.S. shorelines, but there are more total recorded hurricanes in the ocean than had been recorded in the past – they just fail to reach land. Some studies suggest there were just six to eight hurricanes annually during the 1870s, a number that ballooned to 14-16 in the 2000s. Is it just blind luck that we have twice as many hurricanes but fewer making landfall today? Of course not. It’s that we are far better than we used to be at finding and tracking hurricanes, whether they hit land or not. We aggressively identify hurricanes with satellites, aircraft reconnaissance, radar, buoys, and automated weather stations – technology that simply didn’t exist for much of the 20th century, let alone in 1870. So of course we’re able to record more of them today than we could 50 or 100 years ago.
While the frequency of wildfires is way down, their intensity is up. They tend to burn more acres now than they used to. But much of that is explained by forest and fire management policies. For instance, as noted in the UCN piece “Can Utah Manage Public Lands and be Responsible to Taxpayers?” almost 80 percent of Utah’s forests have timber in excess of Forest Service guidelines, creating more fuel available to start more intense fires that burn more acres.
Despite the fact that the frequency of these extreme weather events is falling, whenever one of them does happen, it is often attributed to climate change. During the 2016 election, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tried to link Hurricane Matthew to climate change, saying the hurricane “was likely more destructive because of climate change.” Since Hurricane Katrina, the third most intense hurricane to make landfall, just about every hurricane to strike the U.S. has been blamed on climate change.
However, editors of the scientific journal Nature wrote that while activists and some scientists are striving to give scientific backing to the linking of storms to climate change, even making them a “counterpart to the daily weather forecast,” the unreliability of their models and data means any such attribution is “unjustifiably speculative, basically unverifiable and better not made at all.”
That certainly won’t stop activists and some media members from inflating the number and intensity of extreme weather events, and from trying to blame them on climate change. But responsible citizens will stay aware of the science and remain immune to these unjustifiably speculative pronouncements.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Hurricanes and Global Warming
Committee on Science, Space and Technology: Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method
American Enterprise Institute: 18 Spectacularly Wrong Predictions Made Around the Time of the First Earth Day
Nature: Extreme Weather
Climate Depot: Nearly All Extreme Weather Is Declining
Video: Congressional Testimony of Roger Pielke