The year 1935 brought a Category 5 hurricane to the Florida Keys, knocking a train of departing workers off a set of railroad tracks. During the same year, another storm caused massive flooding in Houston, submerging swaths of downtown and closing the city’s port for eight months.
Frank, who doesn’t think data shows global warming is making hurricanes more frequent or fierce, notes that all these storms struck before the major emissions of carbon dioxide that some modern scientists say contribute to similar storms today: “There were no SUVs in 1935.”
Frank notes that all these storms struck before the major emissions of carbon dioxide that some modern scientists say contribute to similar storms today: ‘There were no SUVs in 1935.’
Fierce storms continued, and the Houston area endured another round of flooding with Tropical Storm Claudette in 1979. The storm stalled out near the city—much like Hurricane Harvey this year—and it dumped some 43 inches of rain in 24 hours—approaching Harvey’s recent rainfall.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita rocked the Gulf Coast in 2005, climate activists warned more megastorms were sure to follow soon. Former Vice President Al Gore predicted in 2005 that the storms were the “first sip of a bitter cup” the country would drink year after year because of global warming.
As it turned out, it would be 12 more years before another Category 3 storm would hit the United States: Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August as a Category 4.
Roger Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, notes that since 1970, the United States has seen only four hurricanes ranked Category 4 or 5 make landfall. In the 47 years before that, he says, the country endured 14 such storms.
Given the history, he warns against using Harvey and Irma as a form of “single-issue myopia” to make the case for drastic measures toward combating climate change.
Ryan Maue, a Florida-based research meteorologist, also warns against overreaction. His research—included in a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report—found that during the last 50 years, tropical storms and hurricanes did not show an upward trend in frequency.
What about intensity?
Some scientists and climate change activists say global warming may not cause individual storms, but they maintain that warmer conditions may make storms more severe. Maue notes that climate models predict over the next half century the world will see fewer but stronger storms.
The key word is predict: As Cato Institute scholar Patrick Michaels points out, given the variability in hurricanes each year, it could take a half century to determine whether the models are correct.
None of this means more megastorms won’t hit the United States.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pielke, the Colorado scientist, wrote that history suggests we’ll experience more storms in the future, whatever one believes or doesn’t believe about climate change: “Because the world has experienced a remarkable period of good fortune when it comes to catastrophes, we are due.” (What some call good fortune, others know as God’s mercy.) The question then becomes: Where should we put scarce resources when preparing for future disasters?
Fully implementing the Paris accord (aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions) could cost tens of trillions of dollars over the next 50 years. (Under President Barack Obama, the United States already pledged $3 billion to the fund, and President Trump is considering whether the United States should pull out of the agreement or renegotiate the terms.)
What would the accord achieve? Cal Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance has said the most optimistic outcome would lead to 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit of cooling: “It won’t save human lives.”
WHAT WOULD SAVE LIVES?
Global warming’s effects on storms may be debatable, but most of the at least 50 deaths in Florida after Hurricane Irma came from clear-cut causes: In many cases, the loss of electricity.
Authorities reported at least 11 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning, often caused by inhaling noxious fumes from running a generator during a loss of power.
Eight residents of a Miami nursing home died from heat-related causes shortly after the storm knocked out a transformer that powered the center’s air-conditioning unit. Three other residents died later. Authorities are investigating whether the staff could have done more to save the residents’ lives.
As other nursing homes and retirement centers struggled without power in a state where some 20 percent of the population is elderly, some staff members tried to keep residents cool with ice pops and cold compresses. Florida’s massive power outage left nearly half the state without service for days, with workers toiling around the clock to repair many aboveground lines.
Roger Anderson, a senior research scientist at the Center for Computational Learning Systems at Columbia University, says the power grid is an important place to start in preparing for future disasters. In a commentary for CNN, he noted 60 percent of Florida’s power grid is above ground, which led to considerable damage and outages during Irma’s wind gusts.