Is Climate Change Worsening Hurricanes? The Evidence Says No
Climate Change Weekly #410
In addition to physical and economic damage, hurricanes Henri and Ida have brought a flood of news stories claiming human-caused climate change is causing more frequent and severe hurricanes.
BBC News, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and almost every other major newspaper or national broadcast news outlet has carried stories, sometimes multiple ones in the same outlet, implying that had humans not caused climate change, people would not be suffering to the degree they are from recent hurricanes. These claims are false. Evidence for human greenhouse gas emissions making hurricane seasons worse is lacking. Almost every credible scientific body in the world, including the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says so.
The mainstream media’s rabid attempt to tie supposed human-caused climate change to individual hurricanes, despite the evidence to the contrary, demonstrates their fanatical adherence to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s admonishment to Democratic Party leaders: “never let a crisis go to waste.”
From July 9 to August 11, during the middle of the annual hurricane season, there was a more than month-long lull of tropical storms, when not a single tropical storm formed in the Atlantic Basin. Where were the news stories discussing this unusual tropical storm drought and attributing it and similar hurricane droughts in recent years to climate change? Search as one might, I doubt you will find a single such story.
What’s interesting about the media’s recent hurricane horror stories is they almost uniformly fail to mention what the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) had to say about tropical storms and hurricanes. When it was released, just three weeks ago, these same media outlets proclaimed AR6 the most authoritative single document on the causes and consequences of climate change. Yet their stories on hurricanes do not quote from AR6 or cite it. Instead, they interview various individual scientists making alarming claims linking hurricanes to climate change.
A story in The Washington Post, titled “How climate change helped make Hurricane Ida one of Louisiana’s worst,” was typical. Instead of relaying what IPCC AR6 said about climate change and hurricanes—it didn’t refer to AR6 at all—the Post asks longtime alarmist scientist Kerry Emanuel for his views.
“People there are going to get blasted,” said Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the physics of hurricanes and their connection to the climate. “This is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to get used to as the planet warms.”
Let’s go back to the quickly forgotten Henri, for a moment.
“In the same week that Tropical Storm Fred caused catastrophic flooding in North Carolina, and Hurricane Grace made its second landfall in Mexico, Hurricane Henri is barreling toward New England, where it’s expected to be the first to make landfall there in 30 years,” wrote CNN.
Wrong!!! Henri briefly attained Hurricane 1 level strength over the Atlantic Ocean, for less than 24 hours, and by the time it made landfall in New England it was a quickly diminishing tropical storm. The last hurricane to strike New England remains Bob in 1991, 30 years ago. At present, New England is experiencing the second-longest period in recorded history without a hurricane making landfall in the region, despite modest warming.
Ida may rival the most powerful hurricanes ever to strike Louisiana or the nation, but it is hardly unique. Research shows, since 1957, in Louisiana alone five hurricanes have made landfall with wind speeds exceeding 150 mph. The most powerful of those five hurricanes, 1969’s Category 5 Camille, had wind speeds exceeding 190 mph. Three of the five Category 4 or higher hurricanes Louisiana experienced during the past 70 years occurred in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the Earth was undergoing a period of modest cooling and many scientists were warning of a coming ice age.
This brings us to the real-world data mainstream media outlets seem desperate to ignore. Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) show hurricanes have not become more numerous or more powerful during the past half-century of modest warming.
The EPA’s May 2021 report on “Climate Change Indicators: Tropical Cyclone Activity” reported,
Since 1878, about six to seven hurricanes have formed in the North Atlantic every year. Roughly two per year make landfall in the United States. The total number of hurricanes (particularly after being adjusted for improvements in observation methods) and the number reaching the United States do not indicate a clear overall trend since 1878.
The IPCC’s 2018 interim report came to essentially the same conclusion. As illustrated in Figure 1 below, the IPCC data demonstrate no increasing trend in tropical cyclone or hurricane numbers.
Figure 1. Tropical cyclone frequency through August 2021, Dr. Ryan Maue
NHC data indicate hurricane impacts on the United States are at an all-time low. The United States recently went more than a decade, 2005 through 2017, without experiencing a major hurricane measuring Category 3 or higher making landfall—the longest such period in recorded history (see Fig. 2).
Figure 2. Landfalling hurricanes of category 3 or greater 1900-2020, Dr. Roger Pielke Jr.
From 2009 through 2017, the United States experienced the lowest number of hurricane strikes over any eight-year period since records have been kept.
The IPCC’s AR6 devotes just a few paragraphs of its more than 3,000-page report to hurricanes, concluding there is limited evidence human-caused climate change is causing more frequent or stronger hurricanes.
“There is low confidence in most reported long-term (multidecadal to centennial) trends in TC frequency- or intensity-based metrics,” says AR6. Hardly material for eye-catching, fear-inspiring headlines.
“Climate at a Glance: Hurricanes” explains warm ocean water is just one factor driving the formation and intensification of hurricanes. Wind shear inhibits strong storms from forming and rips apart storms that have already formed. Science indicates global warming is likely to cause more wind shear in places where hurricanes form and intensify. This is precisely what happened to Henri in mid-August, with wind shear shredding its top and reducing it from a minor hurricane to a tropical depression in a relatively short period of time.
Evidence that tropical cyclones are unlikely to become more severe in the future also comes from a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters. Its authors report that after accounting for the combined size and maximum wind speeds of hurricanes—storms’ “kinetic energy”—climate models project no measurable worsening of future hurricanes if the Earth continues to warm.
“Comparing cyclone integrated kinetic energy between present conditions and a projected future climate scenario did not suggest notable changes between the two periods,” the researchers write.
The human toll and economic costs of Hurricane Ida, yet to be totaled up, are likely to be great. This is true for almost every tropical storm or hurricane that makes landfall. Each year more and more people are moving to within fifty miles of the coasts, developing areas historically prone to hurricanes. Coastal development, moreover, is increasingly high-end, with high-rise condos, hotels, and mega-mansions replacing bait shops and smaller beachfront single-family homes. These factors, not greater numbers of hurricanes or hurricanes having higher wind speeds, account for the increasing economic and human costs of hurricane strikes.
Plain and simple, the data show recent hurricane numbers and wind speeds are well within historical norms. Such unalarming facts may not sell newspapers or ad time on broadcast news channels, but it’s the truth, and the media should do its job and report it.
— H. Sterling Burnett.
IN THIS ISSUE …
MISREPORTING GOOD NEWS FROM IPCC AR6 … NUMBER OF COAL POWER STATIONS GROWING … INDIA’S ENERGY DEMAND UNDERMINES WORLD’S CLIMATE GOALS
MISREPORTING GOOD NEWS FROM IPCC AR6
In a detailed post, the University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke Jr. shows the media are ignoring much good news in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) and misreporting many of AR6’s claims about extreme weather.
“[I]t is simply incorrect to claim that on climate time scales the frequency or intensity of extreme weather and climate events has increased for: flooding, drought (meteorological or hydrological), tropical cyclones, winter storms, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail, lightning or extreme winds (so, storms of any type),” writes Pielke.
Pielke provides a handy table showing the AR6 conclusions regarding whether climate change has increased various environmental phenomena:
Contrary to media reports which often conflate increased rainfall with increased flooding, AR6 makes clear the two phenomena are not necessarily associated. As Pielke points out, although the IPCC states “the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation have likely increased at the global scale over a majority of land regions with good observational coverage,” it explicitly states “heavier rainfall does not always lead to greater flooding.” Regarding flooding, the IPCC writes, “Confidence about peak flow trends over past decades on the global scale is low, … [and] there is low confidence in the human influence on the changes in high river flows on the global scale.”
Although to the media a drought is a drought, the IPCC says otherwise, distinguishing four categories of drought: hydrological, meteorological, ecological, and agricultural. According to the IPCC, there is limited evidence climate change has increased the number, duration, or intensity of hydrological or meteorological droughts, and it has only medium confidence it has “contributed to changes in agricultural and ecological droughts and has led to an increase in the overall affected land area.”
Even for ecological and agricultural droughts the data is a mixed bag. The IPCC divides the world into 47 separate regions of study when analyzing drought trends, and its data suggest ecological and agricultural drought may have increased during the period of modest warming in 12 of those 47 regions. However, in only two of those regions does the IPCC have even “medium confidence” for any human role in the observed increase. For the remaining regions experiencing a possible increase in droughts, the IPCC has low confidence human activities have had any discernible impact.
For extreme weather event after extreme weather event, the IPCC finds limited evidence for worsening trends or, where it does find worsening trends in a class of events, the attribution to human-caused climate change is weak or the long-term effects of the events are limited, not catastrophic.
NUMBER OF COAL POWER STATIONS GROWING
The Helsinki-based research organization the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CRECA) and the U.S. group Global Energy Monitor (GEM) released a report on August 13 detailing China’s plan to build 43 new coal-fired power plants and 18 new blast furnaces, in addition to reopening more than 50 previously closed coal mines.
China is already the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for more than 27 percent of human emissions globally, more than double U.S. emissions. CRECA and GEM report the emissions from the 43 plants China is adding this year alone will add about 1.5 percent to its current annual emissions.
“There is this desire in the Chinese political and economic system to keep on building, to continue the infrastructure fever,” Li Shuo, a senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace in Beijing, told Time magazine in commenting on the report.
China is building three times more new coal-power capacity than the rest of the world combined, and China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Vietnam by themselves account for more than 80 percent of all new coal-power stations planned across the world.
Speaking of Indonesia, which has promised to build only renewable power stations after 2023, the county is in the process of building 14 to 16 gigawatts (GW) of new coal-fueled power plants, including 3.5 GW of mine-mouth power plants—plants built adjacent to an existing coal mine. Indonesia has significant coal reserves, but most of the country’s coal, including the coal to be used at its new mine-mouth power plants, are lignite or subbituminous coals, the lowest-quality and least-efficient types of coal.
Even with the best technology, burning low-quality lignite and subbituminous coal produces more emissions of carbon dioxide and traditional pollutants per unit of energy produced than electricity produced from higher-quality coal. In addition, more coal must be mined and burned to produce electricity, because lignite and subbituminous coals have a lower calorific content than other types.
For many if not all countries, when it comes to meeting their Paris climate agreement emission goals it is becoming increasingly apparent, in the words of that great REM song, they “can’t get there from here.”
INDIA’S ENERGY DEMAND UNDERMINES WORLD’S CLIMATE GOALS
India is increasingly becoming an economic and geopolitical player on the world stage, and as it does, its greenhouse gas emissions are growing along with energy use, as with other countries historically undergoing rapid development.
Writing for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Vijay Jayaraj notes in 2021 India’s home minister called for more investments in the country’s massive coal sector, stating coal will play a “significant role” in achieving India’s USD $5 trillion GDP target.
Coal accounts for more than 70 percent of all electricity generated in India, and the Indian government has recently opened up auctions for mining rights in the country’s extensive coal fields. Thirty-five and a half million tons of coal were auctioned between April and July of 2021, a 28.6 per cent increase over the same period in 2020.
State-owned Coal India Limited has set a target of producing one billion tons of coal between 2023 and 2024 to meet expected growth in demand for energy and steel production.
Coking coal is in high demand. The Energy and Resources Institute reports, “India’s steel demand is likely to more than quadruple in the next 30 years,” from around 111 million tons to 489 million tons, with the state-run Steel Authority of India Limited, the country’s largest steel producer, leading the way in the bidding for more coal.
Government reports also indicate India is keen on securing greater supplies of oil and natural gas, with one reporter writing, “India’s oil demand will double from 5.05 million barrels/day in 2020 to 10 million barrels/day by 2030. In the same period, gas demand will treble from the current 150 million standard cubic metres per day (mmscmd) to 500 mmscmd.”
To boost domestic production and reduce the country’s reliance on oil and gas imports, India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) announced the privatization of 43 oil and gas fields.
Bottom line: India’s fossil fuel use is growing, regardless of any commitments its government has made to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
SOURCE: Global Warming Policy Foundation