Climate change: The hurricane myth

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NOAA: Hurricane Katrina was about the last major hurricanes to make U.S. landfall nearly nine years ago

AUSTIN, June 1, 2014 — June 1 marks the beginning of the 2014 hurricane season. It is a good time to discuss the assertion that human-caused global warming (AGW) is generating more intense hurricanes and in greater numbers — the “hurricane myth.”

The IPCC, the UN body designed to support the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC), abandoned that claim in 2007. It reinforced that conclusion again in the newest AR5 report released last September. It’s right there, plain as a Gulf Coast breeze, in Table SPM.1 on Page 5.


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In 2005, AGW theorists seemed to have evidence on their side; the number of intense hurricanes was increasing. But now it’s been 3,142 days since the last major hurricane made landfall in the United States.


The IPCC conclusions on hurricanes are supported by data:

  • Total energy released by hurricanes
  • Total number of intense hurricanes
  • Total number of days between major hurricanes

Total energy release

According to the hurricane myth, the total amount of energy released by hurricanes should be increasing. More warming causes warmer oceans. Hurricanes are powered by the ocean’s heat content.

The logic is impeccable, but it isn’t happening. It hasn’t been for over 15 years.

Dr. Ryan Maue: Through March 2014, total global hurricane energy has decreased 38 percent since 1998
Dr. Ryan Maue: Through March 2014, total global hurricane energy has decreased 38 percent since 1998

Dr. Ryan N. Maue, a meteorologist and atmospheric research scientist at Weather Bell Models, calculated the total energy released by all of earth’s hurricanes and typhoons since 1972.

The above chart shows his results as of March 31, 2014. It shows an increase in cyclonic energy of a whopping 38 percent from the early 1970s to 1998.


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However, the data show total hurricane energy has dropped off even faster in the last 15 years. Human-caused atmospheric CO2 has increased roughly 25 percent in that same amount of time.

Maue has also tallied the global total number of all hurricanes of any size and plotted them by year. That recordkeeping goes back to 1978. It shows that the total number of hurricanes and total number of major hurricanes have both decreased by 30 percent since 1997.

Numbers of intense hurricanes

According to the hurricane myth, the number of intense hurricanes should also be increasing.

NOAA data/Author graph
NOAA data/Author graph

An intense hurricane is defined as a category 3 or stronger hurricane. Those are the ones AGW theorists say are increasing.

NOAA has tracked all those hurricanes and maintains a publicly accessible database of them. The above chart plots their numbers, tallied by decade, and sports a software-calculated trend line.

Since 1880, the number of intense hurricanes per decade has decreased by about two.

According to the IPCC’s AR5 report, human effects on climate did not become measurable until after 1950. If we plot only since 1950 instead of 1880, then the slope of the downward trend line would be steeper. If not for the last eight seasons when there were no landfalls, the trend line would be roughly flat.

These results are consistent with Maue’s total energy calculations above and his global hurricane counts. The chart is only a regional result that doesn’t reflect the global trend, but Maue’s results suggest that charting the whole planet would produce a similar finding. These data are still inconsistent with the hypothesis that human-caused global warming is generating more intense (Cat 3+) hurricanes than there were in the past.

Number of days between major hurricanes

Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr: Displays the number of days between major U.S. hurricanes tallied since 1900
Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr: Displays the number of days between major U.S. hurricanes tallied since 1900

This last graph plots regional results applied only to the United States, rather than global results. As such, this evidence is not as strong as the Maue and NOAA data.

Further, the trend line is skewed upward by the phenomenal, record-setting 3,142 days since the last major hurricane struck the United States.

Outside the North Atlantic, the Western Pacific is the other major area on earth subjected to many hurricane strength storms. If Pacific storms were included, then the numbers above would be quite different. Perhaps an AGW theorist will chose to do that graph.

The graph is consistent with the other data presented above, and thus supports the conclusion that hurricanes are not becoming more intense, nor more numerous.

IPCC speaks on “extreme weather” hurricane events

Table SPM.1 shows the IPCC assessment for “Increases in intense tropical cyclone activity” (hurricanes).

IPCC AR5 Report: Summarizes hurricane threat assessment from IPCC Table SPM.1
IPCC AR5 Report: Summarizes hurricane threat assessment from IPCC Table SPM.1

Translation: There is a lukewarm belief that human activity will increase hurricane activity sometime in the 2nd half of this century.

Note: The IPCC assessment that increases in intense hurricanes is “virtually certain in North America since 1970” is based on exactly one 4-page paper that examines only one year, 2005. It’s titled, “Atlantic hurricanes and natural variability in 2005” by Trenberth, et al.

The IPCC never actually went out and counted hurricanes or added up their total energy to back up that statement, hence the assessment level of “low confidence“.

Conclusions

For the record, NOAA recorded that Superstorm Sandy in 2012 wasn’t a hurricane when it made landfall. It was a huge storm coming ashore at the worst possible place during high tide, which maximized storm surges in vulnerable population centers.

About one foot of Sandy’s 13 foot storm surge has been attributed to sea level rise in worst-case scenarios.

The IPCC doesn’t believe that Sandy, or any other hurricane for that matter, has been caused by human CO2 emissions, so why should anyone else?

Though the IPCC says “no” and the evidence is compelling, it’s likely that the news media will keep the hurricane myth alive and well for years to come.

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  • Steve Davidson

    For Susan Clipper…

    I redrew the intense hurricane tallies graph to address the “HUGE error” you pointed out. That graph can be located with a Google search for “Inform the Pundits! Climate change: The hurricane myth”. It’s at the top of the list.

    The redraw did not fundamentally change the results.

    I’ll repeat here the comment I left there…
    ————————————
    I corrected the “HUGE error” you pointed out in the figure above. I think the new graph is prettier, don’t you?

    Talking with you reminds me of the movie version of the great Issac Asimov short story, “I, Robot”. In the movie version Detective Spooner (Will Smith) is trying to solve the murder of the old man who invented the three laws governing robot behavior.

    The old man left Spooner a hologram projection programmed to provide simple answers to questions he posed, but it only had limited responses.

    When Spooner asked a particularly important question, the hologram would respond, “That, detective, is the right question. Program terminated”.

    Unlike Detective Spooner, you have yet to ask the right question about the above graph.

  • Steve Davidson

    A criticism of this article was registered suggesting that it has a “HUGE error” in the decadal hurricane tallies shown in the graph above. The reason given is that the last “decade” only contains three years and that it artificially skews the trend line downward. It’s a legitimate criticism.

    To address that issue a new graph was produced tallying hurricanes by 5-year increments for the last 130 years (1883-2013) to eliminate that bias.

    A sister article to this one contains the new results. It can be found by Googling “Climate Change: The hurricane myth Inform the Pundits!” It will be at the top of the list.

    The new graph does not affect conclusions here and the trend line is still down. Thus, this article is left as is. For details read the sister article.