Climate Change

Is Climate Change Making Hurricanes More Destructive?

Not yet in the United States, new studies suggest

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HurricaneFlorenceNOAA
NOAA

"This year has shown us that climate change is a present-day threat to the safety and livelihoods of communities across America," Georgia Institute of Technology climate scientist Kim Cobb told The New York Times last September, shortly after Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina.

"Damages are increasing because the severity of the storms are increasing," Nathaniel Keohane, a climate expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Hill in October. "We can say these impacts are worse, these storms are more severe, the risk of more extreme outcomes are more probable. That's the way that climate change has reshaped our worlds."

Last year, Hurricanes Florence and Michael caused about $50 billion and $15 billion in damages, respectively. Florence's destruction came chiefly from the flooding that ensued after the storm dumped nearly three feet of rain on eastern North Carolina. Michael's 155 mile per hour winds obliterated such Florida panhandle coastal towns as Mexico Beach. As bad as that was, the costs of 2018's hurricanes were considerably lower than the $265 billion in damages wreaked by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017.

So is U.S. hurricane damage increasing because climate change is boosting the severity of the tropical storms? It's complicated.

A November article in Nature Sustainability developed normalized cost trends for hurricane damage in the United States from 1900 to 2017. The normalization process attempts to estimate direct economic losses from a historical storm as if that same event were to occur under contemporary social conditions.

For example, the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 is estimated to have caused $105 million (in 1926 dollars) in damage when it hit. But the researchers calculate that today a storm of that magnitude would cause about $236 billion in losses. Overall, the researchers report that between 1900 and 2017, "197 hurricanes resulted in 206 landfalls with about US$2 trillion in normalized (2018) damage, or just under US$17 billion annually. Consistent with observed trends in the frequency and intensity of hurricane landfalls along the continental United States since 1900, the updated normalized loss estimates also show no trend."

NormalizedLosses
Nature Sustainability

But are fiercer hurricanes becoming more frequent? A July 18 article by the Colorado State University climatologist Philip Klotzbach and his colleagues in the Bulletin of the American Meterological Association finds that "since 1900 neither observed CONUS [continental United States] landfalling hurricane frequency nor intensity shows significant trends." The upshot is that so far, hurricanes amplified by climate change have not been the cause of increasing storm losses in the U.S. Rather, the chief reason for higher losses is that there is much more property to be destroyed along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts than there used to be. Overall, the trend in normalized losses is basically flat.

BAMSNormalizedLosses
Bulletin of the American Meterological Association

The frequency and intensity (and consequently damage) of U.S. landfalling hurricanes tracks changes in the cold and warm phases of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). In general, the years 1900–25 and 1970–94 are classified as negative (cold) AMO periods, and 1926–69 and 1995–2017 are classified as positive (warm) AMO periods.

"Median U.S. normalized hurricane damage shows statistically significant modulations by the AMO, with ?9 times as much median damage in a positive AMO season compared with a negative AMO season," note Klotzbach and his colleagues. The AMO is apparently switching back to a cold phase, which suggests, if past trends are sustained, that Altantic hurricane activity will abate somewhat in the coming years.

While there are no trends in the frequency and intensity of U.S. hurricanes, the global story is a bit different. The MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel reports a significant global increase since 1980 in all storms with maximum wind speeds above 175 kilometers per hour (109 miles per hour). Storms of 200 km/h (125 mph) and more have doubled in number, and those of 250 km/h (155 mph) and more have tripled.

EmanuelHurricanes
RealClimate

Climatologist Ryan Maue tracks global tropical cyclone activity (hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones). He also finds that since 1980 the trend (the bottom trend line) toward bigger storms has been slightly increasing:

GlobalHurricaneActivity
Ryan Maue

So what's the takeway for the public and policy makers? "If you live on a street named River Road," the retired Army lieutenant general in charge of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts quips to The New York Times, your home "is going to flood." But however climate change affects hurricanes, we should all keep firmly in mind geographer Gilbert F. White's 1945 observation that "floods are acts of God, but flood losses are largely acts of man."

One particularly stupid "act of man" is the fiscal insanity of subsidized federal flood insurance that encourages people to build on floodplains and in flood-prone coastal areas. Phasing out this program would reduce property losses and put fewer lives at risk regardless of how big a threat climate change turns out to be.

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  1. I’m still scared you guys.

  2. While there are no trends in the frequency and intensity of U.S. hurricanes, the global story is a bit different.

    The United States keeps it at bay with things like plastic straw bans. Maybe the Western Pacific might want to ease back on aerosol hair spray.

    1. Bailey’s statement is actually wrong. There is a trend – the storms are becoming less frequent. All types of hurricanes making landfall are becoming more rare. The slope is not steep, but it is undoubtedly a negative slope.

      Sorry, Ron.

      1. BT: Did you look at the bottom line on the Maue graph? Researchers like Emanuel suggest that climate change will result in fewer, but stronger hurricanes. Maue’s data is in line with that prediction.

        1. The talking point originally was more frequent and more powerful storms. Being half right is also being half wrong.

  3. Is Climate Change Making Hurricanes More Destructive?

    No. More people and structures are on the coast.

    1. The most powerful hurricane in recorded history to strike the East Coast north of the Carolinas hit in 1635. It landed as a Category 3 or 4 in Connecticut, causing 20+ foot storm surges, which wiped out a few Native American villages. A similar storm today would cost over twice that of Harvey or Katrina.

      1. c: And yet the Pilgrims persisted. 😉

  4. Bailey come on man, get with the program. It says Climate Change right in the name! Stop with your evidence mongering.

  5. While there are no trends in the frequency and intensity of U.S. hurricanes, the global story is a bit different. The MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel reports a significant global increase since 1980 in all storms with maximum wind speeds above 175 kilometers per hour (109 miles per hour).

    With continuous satellite coverage of the entire world, we know the max wind velocity of every single storm on the planet.

    Can the same be said of wind velocities prior to 1980?

    1. I: Of course researchers do try to take into account data problems from earlier than the satellite era, but in any case the global upward trends cited are all post-1980.

    2. No, but that’s never stopped them from using guesstimate proxies before. Why start caring about hard data now?

  6. Are insurance rates in hurricane zones going up disproportionately to other areas?

    I trust an insurance company far more than I trust an academic or government official who will actually gain by hyping climate change.

    1. “Are insurance rates in hurricane zones going up disproportionately to other areas?”

      Yes, as I understand it, they are. Pretty much in direct relationship to the property values, NOT in relationship to any supposed increased danger.
      I think I got a better market-metric: When the limo-libs start shorting Malibu properties, we’ll know someone is serious.

      1. “I think I got a better market-metric: When the limo-libs start shorting Malibu properties, we’ll know someone is serious.”

        Or when a majority of Global Warming scientists support subsidies for Nuclear Power because of Global Warming.

        1. Indeed, if the world is really ‘going to end’ if we don’t lower carbon emissions it seems obvious that we would need to switch to nuclear today or kill off a lot of people in the 3rd world to save the rest of us.

  7. oy. no. try different perspectives.

  8. “One particularly stupid “act of man” is the fiscal insanity of subsidized federal flood insurance that encourages people to build on floodplains and in flood-prone coastal areas.” Yep this is absolutely true and is an ongoing debate here in Florida. Not to mention they are subsidizing the rich as the majority of the people who live on the coast are normally well off. Not that I care if the individuals are rich however why are we subsidizing those who live on the coast when its an individual decision? They take on the unneccessary risk and we the tax payers foot the bill for their negligence. That’s bs.

    1. p: Just to bolster your point, the link the article to federally subsidized flood insurance cites a study that finds: “The owners of higher-value properties paid a smaller premium than the owners of lower-value properties. In effect, taxpayers across America are subsidizing the lifestyles of rich people with waterfront homes.”

      1. “are subsidizing the lifestyles of rich people with waterfront homes.””

        Otherwise known as the marginal Donation demographic.

    2. This–

      “One particularly stupid “act of man” is the fiscal insanity of subsidized federal flood insurance that encourages people to build on floodplains and in flood-prone coastal areas.”

      Is wrong.

      People need no encouragement to build by water. They will do it regardless of flood plain or storm surge. Because it’s part of how humans evolved. Further, a lot of human interaction is water based.

      The subsidized flood insurance came about because there are NEEDS associated with building by water. Ports are always subject to storm surge AND upriver flooding. And ports are a necessity. The costs of storm surge and flood plain must be defrayed.

  9. It’s pretty nutty that anyone would use dollar values of damage as a metric given that money doesn’t hold it’s value and it doesn’t say a single thing about the actual severity of the storm, which is ultimately what they’re trying to look at.

    It’s just a bad proxy measure no matter how you slice it, and the fact they keep using it tells me that they’re desperate for any kind of metric to make their point when few good one’s actually exist. Yet, anyway, since eventually if mankind makes it long enough we’ll have a data set. Maybe 50,000 years from now? Probably longer though, but no one seems willing to wait that long to make their dire predictions.

    1. “but no one seems willing to wait that long to make their dire predictions.”

      A warmer atmosphere means more energetic hurricanes. There’s nothing dire about that, I’m sure there’s not a meteorologist on the planet who’d disagree.

      1. A warmer atmosphere means more energetic hurricanes.

        As usual you don’t have a clue

        First of all, the ocean waters have to be warmer than 26 degrees Celsius . The heat and the moisture from warm waters is the source of energy for cyclones. Cyclones will weaken rapidly as they travel over land or colder ocean waters where there is less of warmth and moisture. Not only, to having warm ocean water, high humidity levels in the lower and middle troposphere are also required for cyclone development.

      2. Actually, no it does not. Energetic hurricanes (like all heat engines) are created by temperature differentials, not by absolute levels of heat. In other words, to get work out of the system, you need a source that is hot and a sink that is cold – and the bigger the difference, the more work you can extract. In the terrestrial atmosphere, the tropics are hot and the poles are cold. Winds up to and including hurricanes are a manifestation of work extracted through that temperature differential.

        The predictions coming from all the major climate change computer models claim that the poles will get warmer faster. In other words, the temperature differential should be decreasing. That means less potential work to extract which means less energetic hurricanes if the climate change models are right.

        1. It’s probably more accurate to say that a warmer atmosphere will give us wetter hurricanes, leaving aside the matter of energy.

          1. It’s probably more accurate to say …

            It’s definitely more accurate to say that you spit crap out about things you know nothing about. When shown to be wrong, you try to weasel your way out with incoherent nonsense.

            1. You agree then, warmer atmosphere, wetter hurricanes. I’m not weaseling out of anything. I appreciate the time and trouble Rossami took to respond, without trying to insult me.

          2. Except that a) the measured water content of the atmosphere has been slightly lower during the period of recent period of temperature increases (another data point that contradicts the predictions of the major climate change models) and b) measurements of conditions when the atmosphere has more starting moisture have no impact on hurricane strength, duration or precipitation levels.

            1. Thanks for your response. From what I’ve been able to glean from various sources, warmer oceans (rather than atmosphere) lead to more intense (though not necessarily more frequent) hurricanes. Judith Curry, the world’s most honest climate scientist, has written about this:

              “Globally, only sea surface temperature increased in line with super-strong hurricanes, Curry’s team reports in Science1.

              The fact that warmer seas make for harsher storms may not come as a surprise. Hurricanes are formed when water evaporating from the oceans feeds a swirling mass of clouds: the warmer the water, the more energy available for the storm. “

              1. That is correct (and I probably should have highlighted it sooner) – warmer oceans are associated with more powerful hurricanes, not warmer (or wetter) atmospheres. But not that it’s not merely the energy transport through the evaporative process. There are a couple other interconnected physical processes that also transfer energy from a warmer ocean into the atmosphere to generate large storms.

                And kudos for finding Curry. I have great respect for her work.

      3. There’s no reason to reply to mtrueman, they don’t believe in the Solar Cycle, as just one nutty thing.

        1. trueman is here in the hopes someone slips and clicks on his pathetic website by mistake, thereby doubling the hits this week.

  10. Basically another government-created problem. Federally-backed flood and disaster insurance and massive FEMA efforts encourage people to build in hurricane-prone areas … which leads to more hurricane damage … and calls for more government intervention *pounds head on desk*.

    1. In CA, the tax structures are such that it’s cheaper to build and live in the boonies, near the (almost totally) un-managed forests, with kindling piled up to your back door.
      All of which allows moonbeam to bloviate about ‘climate change’ when the homes burn to the ground.

  11. Americans should welcome powerful hurricanes and climate change as the first patriots.

    If it wasn’t for the storm of 1780, the British navy wouldn’t have been gutted. And the French navy would have then had to stay in the Caribbean the next season rather than do everything to avoid the Caribbean. Which means Cornwallis would have been evacuated from Yorktown and would have been able to reinvade anywhere he liked along the coast. Which means we would still be playing whack-a-mole with the Brits in the longest ever colonial war.

    1. At the very least, people like Krugman should welcome Hurricanes. You know, because they ‘generate a lot of economic activity’. You have to watch out for guys like that, they’ll always break your windows and expect a thank you in return.

  12. “This year has shown us that climate change is a present-day threat to the safety and livelihoods of communities across America,” Georgia Institute of Technology climate scientist Kim Cobb told The New York Times”

    And this is the same Georgia Tech that Judith Curry – the best, most honest climate scientist of all – left because she couldn’t take the BS from the administration any more. Good job, yellow jackets.

    Um…yellow jackets. Could the yellow vests be any more ironic?

    1. She’s cute, though (Cobb).

  13. The Emanuel study is junk. The Maue report is better. But it’s worth nothing that while Maue’s trendline for bigger storms is up very slightly, the trend is not statistically significant. In other words, based on the data so far it is impossible to distinguish the trend from expected randomness around a flat line.

    1. “nothing” -> “noting”

      (we really need an edit button…)

  14. “If you live on a street named River Road,” the retired Army lieutenant general in charge of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts quips to The New York Times, your home “is going to flood.”

    Just change the name to Highland Ave. Boom! Problem solved.

  15. According to the National Weather Service, hurricanes are more destructive because the mighty wind god, Blow Me, is angry at all us mortals.
    We have failed to make the necessary human sacrifices needed to ensure a tranquil hurricane season, and if that isn’t enough, when we do make these sacrifices, the people being sacrificed are not virgins which only furthers enrages Blow Me.
    So let’s all get our shit together, make the proper sacrifices at the proper times with the proper people.
    Otherwise, the entire east coast of America will disappear, and Indiana will have beach front property.
    You’ve been warned.

    1. Instead of virgins, can we sacrifice the butter faces? I get tired of being impressed at 50 feet only to shriek in horror at what details are obtained at 20 feet.

  16. I thought everyone (who matters) realized that climate change makes everything worse. For example, I can’t find my 18MM combination wrench. Obviously, the problem is climate change.

    1. Last week, my oldest son was walking around with my socket set. This weekend, when my middle son asked me where it was because he needed it, I asked him if it was on the shelf in the basement where we keep it. It wasn’t. After a lengthy investigation, neither one of them knows where it is or who had it last. The only remaining factor humanity’s contribution to CO2 levels. It’s always the last place you look, you know?

    2. Oops! That’s on me dude, I borrowed it and forgot to return it.
      Thanks it won’t happen again I promise

  17. Is the climate change man made? If so, can we change it? If not, same question. Deafening silence.

  18. More people are building houses on the coasts so they can monitor the sea rise from climate change. Then the hurricanes wipe out the houses. So yes, in a way climate change makes hurricanes more damaging.

  19. Climate studies can’t answer the questions of cause and effect. Those who “study” climate can only hypothesize because experiments cannot be conducted. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of people who pretend to understand and explain complex climate phenomena. Many of them call themselves scientists, or climate experts. What they really are, are pretenders, descendants of a long line of mystics, soothsayers, prophets, witch doctors, and politicians.

    1. “Nevertheless, there is no shortage of people who pretend to understand and explain complex climate phenomena.”

      Starting with Tyndal, the first person to pretend to understand the heat trapping qualities of greenhouse gases.

    2. Well, sort of. Climate studies can’t definitively prove causation but they can disprove certain causation theories.

      If you remember honeybees as an example, we still don’t know what caused Colony Collapse Disorder but by looking at the historical pattern of colonies in vicinity of power lines and other known and long-standing sources of electromagnetic radiation, we could absolutely and beyond a shadow of doubt exclude that ridiculous claim that cell phones did it.

  20. This is an obvious conclusion given that we measure hurricane strength by repair costs?which has never made sense, but I’m not entirely sure what metric you’d use to measure such large storms. Having lived through a few, I don’t find them any more or any less dangerous, but that is, of course, anecdotal.

    1. Total cyclonic energy is a pretty good metric. It captures aspects of both the wind speed and the magnitude of the storm such that a small but very violent storm could be the same as a much larger but less violent storm. And it ignores all the distractions of damage caused by people who chose to build their houses right on the train tracks.

      And on the measure of aggregate total cyclonic energy, you are correct that the measure is essentially flat for as far back as we have reliable data. (It might even be slightly trending down but I don’t think we have enough data for that conclusion to be significant yet.)

  21. it’s high time that we understand our responsibilities and duty towards mother nature and try our best to stop this destruction.
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  22. No! Hurricanes are more destructive because stupid people insist on building “palaces” in dangerous areas.

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