Facts about Weather and Climate Extremes
by S. Fred Singer
published in the Washington Times Sept 24,1999
Hurricane Floyd spawned a virtual media frenzy. The over-reaction provoked the Comedy Channel's ad: "The Storm of the Century of the week; today on the Daily Show!" Promoters of global warming fears and the Kyoto Protocol have been busy blaming storms, floods, droughts, disease, and all kinds of misfortunes on the atmospheric increase of greenhouse gases. President Bill Clinton, in New Zealand, balmed it all on the use of energy. Vice President Al Gore told schoolchildren that the summer heat wave on the East Coast was evidence for global warming. Some insurance companies are making nervous noises, and the major European reinsurance firms have even started a scare campaign, obviously interested in raising rates. What are the facts?
The first fact is really obvious. The longer we accumulate weather records, the more likely we are to find an extreme weather event. Even if there is no long-term change in climate, statistical variability alone guarantees ever new records. It's like tossing coins. The more tosses, the likelier we are to see a long run of heads or of tails. The record for the coldest day or the driest month is bound to be surpassed the longer we keep records.
But what do professional meteorologists and climate experts say? They tell us not to believe in false prophets and scaremongers who have their own agenda. Here is the view of George H. Taylor, state climatologist for Oregon and president of the American Association of State Climatologists:
"It's tempting to blame climate change for the multibillion-dollar consequences of floods, hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, hail and thunderstorms. During the past 25 years, financial losses from these and other natural disasters in the United States have averaged about $500 million per week and are mounting. Advocates of aggressive action to control global warming maintain that catastrophes will become increasingly likely if we do not take drastic steps to curtail fossil-fuel consumption . Vice President Al Gore, who keeps telling people that global warming is dangerous, attributed the devastating 1997 flood on the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota to a combination of El Nino and climate change."
"Much of the debate over global warming is really beside the point, because the key assumption -- that there is a scientific consensus on climate change -- is false. In fact, many mainstream scientists say there is insufficient knowledge of the magnitude of natural climatic variations, especially solar radiation and ocean currents, to gauge how large the human impact is by comparison."
His opinions are echoed by academic meteorologists. For example, researchers at the University of Buffalo reported that this year's heat and drought are part of a normal climate patterns, not global warming. "Drought occurs in almost every region on earth on a somewhat regular basis," said Charles H.V. Ebert, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geography. "Patterns of relatively wet, dry, hot or cold weather usually run in six- to-eight-year cycles. But media attention, combined with our poor memories of past weather, tend to generate unjustified alarm for our climatic future." According to Ebert, hot spells have been occurring for thousands of years and each one is followed by a cooling period. People just don't remember, because "our memories are short."
Even climate modelers agree. At the 1999 meeting of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics in Birmingham, England, Barrie Hunt and Anthony Hirst, of Australia's national research organization, reported that even with stable atmospheric composition the natural climate system is chaotic. "Fifty percent of the globe seems to have a 10-year drying or wetting sequence within a 1000-year period," said Hunt. As reported in the New Scientist (August 7, 1999), their model shows that "some regions could suddenly be seared by intense heat and drought, or inundated by rain, for the best part of 30 years."
But is the weather really changing for the worse? An article in USA Weekend (August 29, 1999) by two Weather Channel meteorologists, Colin Marquis and Stu Ostro, argues that the weather is pretty much the same as it has always been, only that our perceptions have changed. One of the reasons why we may think the weather is wilder is the massive growth in media coverage. "Today, real-time multimedia communication means gripping images get beamed instantly from tornado alley into our living rooms - or PCs. It's as if we're all experiencing the bad weather, albeit vicariously," say Marquis and Ostro.
The number of land-falling hurricanes has diminished, according to the authors. There were 23 from 1940-69, but there have only been 14 since 1970. Damage from hurricanes has increased dramatically, however, from $36.8 billion for the period 1940-69 to $74.9 billion for 1970-96. This can be attributed entirely to the "nearly uninhibited growth along the nation's coasts."
Finally, the June 1999 issue of the prestigious Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society featured a review by three specialists on the economic and human health impact of changing weather and climate extremes. "Most measures of economic impacts over the past several decades reveal increasing losses. But weather and climate extremes do not show comparable increases with time. This suggests that increasing losses are primarily due to increasing vulnerability arising from a variety of societal changes, including a growing population in higher-risk coastal areas and large cities, more property subject to damage, and lifestyle and demographic changes, subjecting lives and property to greater exposure."
"Flood damages and fatalities have generally increased in the last 25 years. While some have speculated that this may be due in part to a corresponding increase in the frequency of heavy rain events, the climate contribution to the observed impacts trends remains to be quantified. There has been a steady increase in hurricane losses. However, when changes in population, inflation, and wealth are considered, there is instead a downward trend. This is consistent with the observed trends in hurricane frequency and intensity. Increasing losses due to thunderstorm-related phenomena (winds, hail, tornadoes) are explained entirely by changes in societal factors, consistent with the observed trends in the thunderstorm phenomena. Winter storm damages have increased in the last 10-15 years and this appears to be partially due to increases in the frequency of intense nor'easters. There is no evidence of changes in drought-related losses and no apparent trend in drought frequency. There is also no evidence of changes in the frequency of intense heat or cold waves."
Still scared of global warming ? Then let's remember something else: More people die during cold weather than during warm spells.
S. Fred Singer, PhD
The Science & Environmental Policy Project
1600 South Eads Street, Suite #712-S
Arlington, VA 22202-2907
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org WWW: http://www.sepp.org
The writer, an atmospheric physicist, is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and the president of the Fairfax-based Science & Environmental Policy Project, a non-profit policy institute. He has held several academic and governmental positions, including as the first director of the US Weather Satellite Service.