Just the Facts on Hurricanes

  • Date: 25/11/19
  • Roger Pielke Jr, Forbes

The 2019 North Atlantic hurricane season ends officially later this week. Here I am going to give you the straight scoop on hurricanes.

just the facts on hurricanes

Everything that follows is fully consistent with recent scientific assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeU.S. National Climate Assessment and World Meteorological Organization. In fact, the information below comes straight out of these authoritative assessment reports.

Before proceeding, it is important to point out that hurricanes, and tropical cyclones more generally, are a big deal. They can kill in the thousands and cause hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. They deserve our attention. But when I started studying hurricanes in 1994 as a post-doctoral researcher at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, I could never have guessed that these powerful storms would be a highly politicized area of science 25 years later.

Climate change is real, and is expected to have impacts on tropical cyclones. I have long advocated for aggressive mitigation and adaptation policies and nothing below is to the contrary. In fact, I think that scientific accuracy and effective policy making go hand-in-hand.

So let’s look at a few questions and answers, on some key topics related to hurricanes and tropical cyclones more generally. In my experience, many are surprised by the information below from official databases and leading scientific assessments.

Have landfalling hurricanes or major hurricanes (those of Category 3 strength or greater) in the United States become more common since 1900?

No.

The graphs below show the data (updated from this paper, with data from NOAA). The past 14 years have seen the fewest landfalls of major hurricanes (3) of any such period since 1900. The 14 years ending 1928 saw 13 major hurricanes hit the United States.

US huricanes
U.S. mainland landfalling hurricanes, 1990 through 24 November 2019.R. PIELKE JR.
US major hurricanes
U.S. mainland landfalling major (Category 3+) hurricanes, 1990 to 24 November 2019.R. PIELKE JR.

Once past damage is adjusted for the presence of more people, more property and more wealth, has damage increased?

No.

Since there is no trend in hurricane landfalls, especially in the strongest storms which cause the overwhelming majority of damage, we should not expect to see any trend in damage after such adjustments. The graph below shows the data (updated from this paper).

Normalized US hurricane damage.
U.S. mainland hurricane damage 1900 to 2019, normalized to 2019 values. Note 2018 and 2019 are … [+]R. PIELKE JR.

U.S. landfalling hurricanes are just a small subset of all North Atlantic hurricanes. Have North Atlantic hurricanes increased in frequency or intensity?

There is a strong consensus within the scientific community that available evidence does not support claims of increasing North Atlantic hurricane activity. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) concluded, “No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin.” More recently, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of NOAA concluded, “the historical Atlantic hurricane frequency record does not provide compelling evidence for a substantial greenhouse warming-induced long-term increase.”

Since 1970 hurricane activity has increased in the Atlantic, but there is disagreement among consensus assessments on whether this increase is part of the normal ups and downs of hurricane activity or is beyond documented variability. 

On the one hand, the US NCA concluded, “Despite the level of disagreement about the relative magnitude of human influences, there is broad agreement that human factors have had an impact on the observed oceanic and atmospheric variability in the North Atlantic, and there is medium confidence that this has contributed to the observed increase in hurricane activity since the 1970s. This is essentially unchanged from the IPCC AR5 statement.”

On the other hand, the WMO tropical cyclone expert assessmentconcluded: “only 1 of 11 authors agreed with the following statement: ‘the balance of evidence suggests that there has been a detectable increase in North Atlantic [tropical cyclone] activity since the 1970s’.” It will be interesting how the next IPCC report adjudicates between these differing views.

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