Behind the hurricane hype

August 26, 2010


The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the mild hurricane Danielle tracking toward Bermuda, turns thoughts toward cyclones.

In May, before the current Atlantic hurricane season began, forecasts were for Armageddon. This year’s hurricane season could be “very active” (Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) or “very very active” (CNN) or “a hell of a year” with “quite high” numbers of intense storms (William Gray, head of the hurricane prediction center at Colorado State University).

What has actually happened so far? A below-average season of two hurricanes, neither one intense.

The totals should change, though. September can be the peak month for Atlantic hurricanes. But three of the last four years have shown below-average hurricane activity in the Atlantic, and 2010 is shaping up as another below-average season.

What’s going on here? Wasn’t global warming supposed to spawn ultra-monster hurricanes? That’s what Al Gore started claiming five years ago. Similar assertions have been heard from other quarters, too.

Of course, just because Al Gore says something doesn’t mean it’s untrue. So what is going on?

The media loves predictions of deadly hurricanes. Each spring NOAA, CSU and other organizations issue hurricane forecasts; in recent years nearly all such forecasts have been alarming; the alarming forecasts are played up. If hurricane season ends without calamity, there are never follow-up stories noting the predictions were wrong, because newspapers and newscasts want to feature the next spring’s alarming predictions.

The media loves hurricanes, period. Hurricanes make great television! Fierce winds, lapping waves, correspondents in heavy rain gear shouting to be heard. Plus because hurricanes take days to form, there’s time to put newscasting resources in their paths: good luck positioning cameras in the path of a tornado. I don’t think it is too cynical to say that cable news is rooting for destructive hurricanes, though rooting for a kind of Hollywood fantasy hurricane which causes widespread cinematic-quality destruction but doesn’t kill anyone.

Predictions are worthless. The below mini-chart shows the pre-hurricane-season predictions of NOAA and CSU, followed by actual results. (I use the upper bound for NOAA, which sometimes issues vague predictions such as “three to seven” hurricanes, which is like predicting, “the Dow Jones will either rise or fall.” I use the seasons-start predictions by CSU, which has a sneaky habit of altering its forecasts once the season is nearly over and most of the trend is already known.)

8 hurricanes, 3 intense. 8 hurricanes, 3 intense. 9 hurricanes, 6 intense.
9 hurricanes, 5 intense, 8 hurricanes, 4 intense. 15 hurricanes, 7 intense. (This was the year of Katrina and Rita.)
10 hurricanes, 6 intense. 9 hurricanes, 5 intense. 5 hurricanes, 2 intense.
10 hurricanes, 5 intense. 9 hurricanes, 5 intense. 6 hurricanes, 2 intense.
9 hurricanes, 5 intense. 8 hurricanes, 4 intense. 8 hurricanes, 5 intense.
7 hurricanes, 3 intense. 5 hurricanes, 2 intense. 3 hurricanes, 2 intense.
14 hurricanes, 7 intense. 10 hurricanes, 5 intense So far: 2 hurricanes, neither intense.

Note that in the six years before the current season, only two of the 12 major predictions turned out to be correct. Since the likely numerical range of hurricanes is fairly small – the 50-year average is six hurricanes, three intense – you’d think some predictions would be right by sheer chance. Instead the leading experts in the field have been wrong on 10 of their last 12 projections, and are on track to be totally wrong this year.

Predictions get attention anyway. Last year Colorado State analyzed its predictions and for the last 25 years discerned only a “modest” improvement over simply predicting every season would be average. As best I could determine, no major media outlet covered the release of this report showing that hurricane predictions are a complete waste of everyone’s time.

The sillier the prediction, the better. Colorado State has gotten press for this website, which claims to generate a scientific likelihood of hurricane landfalling by U.S. county.  The page offers absurdly hyper-specific predictions, such as a “18.7 percent probability” that a hurricane will strike Harrison County, Mississippi, this year, or a “2.4 percent probability” that a hurricane will cross Essex County, New Jersey. Numbers such as these are gibberish, not science — since what’s to the right of the decimal point cannot possibly have statistical significance, and what’s to the left is pure guesswork. But the pseudo-science feel makes for a nice source of stories for local newscasters. (“Researchers Say Hurricane Might Strike Maine.”)

Hurricanes have been awful long before artificial global warming. The extremely strong Great Hurricane of 1780 killed about 27,500 people, at a time when the Western Hemisphere was far less populous — and when artificial greenhouse gas emissions were not a factor. The Category Four Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed 8,000 people, and occurred when greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere were much lower than today. The 1938 Long Island hurricane left 800 dead and $4.6 billion in property damage (stated in 2010 dollars), also occurring before coal and oil use could have altered nature.

Hurricanes don’t show any pattern clearly linked to greenhouse gases. A terrible hurricane year (2005) or an eerily quiet year (2009) doesn’t prove anything one way or the other. Nor does the larger trend. For the last 60 years, decade-by-decade averages have been roughly the same. A good summary is here.

But you should still worry. Just because climate change hasn’t yet caused more or stronger hurricanes does not mean they will not happen. The evidence for climate change is strong. If sea surface temperatures are the key to hurricanes, as some researchers think, then hurricanes should get worse, because sea surface temperatures are rising. Then again, climate change might make cold fronts less cold, while reducing the difference between high- and low-pressure areas, and those factors could reduce hurricane incidence or intensity.

This 2005 paper by a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published just before Katrina, takes the view that rising sea-surface temperatures will cause stronger hurricanes and also more rain. This 2009 paper, from a researcher affiliated with the same organization, takes the view that hurricane activity will decline in a warmer world.

This recently released study, from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton — gotta love that name — splits down the middle, forecasting that climate change will increase hurricane activity but slowly, requiring decades or longer. (The Princeton paper is also a rare example of presenting scientific information in a way intended to be comprehensible and accessible.)

Perhaps the Princeton paper would cause you to think, “If hurricanes won’t get worse until 2050, then I don’t need to care about this.” You do.

One of the big questions of global warming is whether there will be tipping points — natural thresholds that cause climate change to accelerate. If the Princeton paper’s view is correct, by the time the tipping point for hurricanes is reached, it will be too late to reverse the effect — because greenhouse gas levels in the air will be too high.
Bottom line: instant-doomsday hurricane panic isn’t supported by science. But greenhouse gas regulation is.

Photo caption: Waves crash upon rocks as weather conditions worsen due to a low pressure system passing through the area along the coastline in Port Fourchon, Louisiana July 5, 2010. There was a “high chance” it will become the second named storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season before it makes landfall in the Terrebonne Parish area near Caillou Bay early Monday evening, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said . REUTERS/Sean Gardner


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Posted by Behind the hurricane hype | Journalist Profile | economic university | Report as abusive

Behind the hurricane hype | Journalist Profile |…

I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

Posted by World Wide News Flash | Report as abusive

2005 was an anomaly, and after that all the paranoid schizophrenic “climate change experts” were put in charge of making future weather predictions.

That’s what’s going on.

Posted by gruven137 | Report as abusive

That’s a relief! Goodness knows we can use a break. Just shaking my head at the experts. Gotta love the experts!

Posted by alwayslearning | Report as abusive

Global warming must be over. We are all saved.

Posted by Trooth | Report as abusive

Hype no. La Nina currents were strong this year … water was too cold for surfing in San Diego, and the West Coast wet season will probably start early, and rain will prebably be light north of Santa Barbara.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

Al Gore is rolling over in his grave

Posted by STORYBURNthere | Report as abusive

Hurricanes are fascinating, and predictions of many terrible hurricanes are even more fascinating. That’s why the “experts” predict as they do, especially when such predictions promote their agenda. Easterbrook very diplomatically inferred what most of us already know: Al Gore is a total buffoon.

Posted by BringMoney | Report as abusive

it’s simple , as the WORLD is warming ( and please , it’s not on account of co2 , but solar activity), the difference in temperatures is muted . hence , fewer huricanes due to temperature differentials.

Posted by chrisvb | Report as abusive

Tornado hits Essex as forecasters give hope of sunshine for Bank Holiday weekend…

Mercifully no damage was caused because the tornado materialised over fields and did not “touch down” while it traveled over buildings. Council worker David Stammers, 56, ”couldn’t believe his eyes” when he first saw the tornado. He said: …

Posted by | Report as abusive

Where you try to make the case of hurricanes strength prior to the last couple of decades by quantifying a death toll as parallel to hurricane intensity under “Hurricanes have been awful long before artificial global warming” it should be pointed out that these high death tolls were actually due to the extremely poor tropical storm/hurricane observation “systems” in place at the time. There were basically none, much less buoys, trained spotters, and reconnaissance planes we have in place today to give people what should be fair warning (at least bright people- so we still have issues even today).

As to your point of the prediction system just being media hype- isn’t that the bulk of news today? I see very little difference between Reuters/MSNBC/Fox/CBS/NBC/ABC et al. and Access Hollywood.

Posted by mynamehear2 | Report as abusive

These so called experts and the media that hypes the Hurricanes should all be held liable for higher insurance premiums in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. All this media hype has caused rates to skyrocket. I remember when All State was refusing to pay people for Katrina and Ivan damage yet they were running Million dollar spots during the super bowl. This hype just gives these companies an excuse to raise rates or cancel policies for no cause just because they think it is too big a risk for them. All this hype also hurts the housing market which in turn affects the remainder of the economy. Sooner or later one of these states are going to sue CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS, or NBC over hyped claims of Armageddon that result in excessive costs to the state and it’s taxpayers. Lets not even talk about how much business they turned away from Florida with their BP coverage. Nothing ever reached the shores along the Gulf Coast of Florida yet the tourists stayed away because of the news coverage and reports of oil on the beaches. That reporting cost Florida millions in revenue. Where is the accountability and integrity?

Posted by Bdy2010 | Report as abusive

Gotta love the hype machine. I believe in global warming and do believe that it will change rain fall patterns and such. I don’t believe it is the disaster they make it out to be. Although sever weather may increase, for the most part people of the world will not notice the difference. If we could still be alive 80 years from now we would probably say “Why did we worry so much?” Plus, you just can’t expect all areas of the world to be perfect rain fall and perfect temps year after year. Sometimes some of the sever weather reports may have even happened even if the earths temperature had never risen. I don’t think people realize that sever heat waves and droughts even happened in the 1700’s. We don’t have the exclusive gold card on sever weather today, other generations have seen them too. I get the impression that global warming hype has left people with the impression that in the 1800’s it was all mild summers with perfect rain fall and winters just a little on the cold side with some snow. That it all changed in 1946 with global warming.

Posted by Tonhogg | Report as abusive

I read your article on hurricane predictions and generally thought it was well done. However I take issue with your examples of hurricanes that killed many thousands of people prior to global warming concerns.

Although your point is correct — there were killer hurricanes prior to global warming — it’s unfair to compare “kill counts” from 1780 or 1900 to today because in both those cases weather forecasting was nonexistent or rudimentary. The population in both those cases didn’t know that hurricanes were coming and didn’t relocate inland, like is commonly done today. Storm surges swept away thousands of people who were completely unaware that they were in any danger. I am sure that the number of people killed by Katrina would have been much higher if the Gulf coast population didn’t have several days warning that a huge hurricane was barreling down on them.

It may be a minor point and doesn’t detract from your the major theme of your article but if you are going to compare hurricane damage from 230 years ago to today you should tell the whole story.

Posted by Freealonzo | Report as abusive

Thanks for pointing this out, Gregg. I have been saying the same thing for many years. Dr. Gray rolls out his storm prediction every year and those that that are old enough to remember Hurricane Betsy, Camille, etc. start their hand wringing and worrying, most of it unnecessarily. And then midway through the season when the predicted number of storms don’t materialize the experts revise their numbers downward. Much like predicting the score of a game and revising it at half-time. (Along those lines, I think Vegas odds makers would do a much better job of predicting hurricanes than any of these so-called experts!) As a resident of New Orleans I find this type of reporting to be extremely irresponsible and dangerous. I recall when TS Bonnie was forming in the Atlantic the media went into over-drive causing panic in the region. Locals had visions of oil-laced rain being dumped upon them and washing up on shore. The Coast Guard, against the wishes of local experts and leaders, evacuated the clean-up crews and moved equipment and booms out of “harms” way, exposing our wetlands to even more oil. If you remember correctly Bonnie ended up being a non-event, less powerful than the daily afternoon summertime thunderstorms, just as the local leaders predicted. I am sure she disappointed the media.

Posted by flyinbayou | Report as abusive

Speaking of sneak, Mr. Easterbrook, you are being not exactly honest here…for starters the National Hurricane Center does not make forecasts for exact numbers of hurricanes. They give ranges. Interesting you use the high end number that makes your point look best.

For example, the 2007 season the forecast was for the following:

13-17 named storms, 7-10 hurricanes, 3-5 intense. Actual was 17 named storms, 6 hurricanes, 2 intense. Not complete and total bust you are portraying here. 2009, it was 9-14 storms, 4-7 hurricanes, 1-3 intense. Actual was 9/3/2, correct on the named storms, slightly lower on hurricanes, correct on intense.

As for this year, “mild” Hurricane Danielle was forecasted to become a major hurricane, including while you were writing that, and guess what – they were right. “Mild” must mean a category 4 hurricane in your thinking, because that’s what it was. I am sure the next time a similar storm approaches land, they will be comforted with your thinking that it’s just “mild.”

As for the rest of the season, we are currently above normal. Normally, we wouldn’t see our sixth storm form until Sept. 8. Yesterday Fiona formed. We wouldn’t normally see our third hurricane until Sept. 9, Earl was the third. We wouldn’t normally see our second “intense” or major hurricane until Oct. 3. We already got that with Earl.

Yes, the media overhypes things, but that’s not the fault of NOAA. And you can’t judge a forecast until the season’s over, even if you falsely believe it’s a “quiet” season. You are one of two things here, Mr. Easterbrook – mistaken or dishonest. I hope it’s the former.

Don’t get mad at me, get mad at reality.

Posted by JCO | Report as abusive

Love that you are on Reuters now. I have been a longtime TMQ reader and always found your non-football content unbelievably interesting. Journalist should be more then just recorders, they should be skeptics seeking truth. Glad to see that you aptly fill that roll here.

Posted by 7zebras | Report as abusive

SanPa: but the experts account for el niño and la Nina and still got it wrong. Also, if we can predict a multiyear, cyclical pattern like el niño and la nina, why do we all of the sudden have the ability to forecast out decades to predict the 2030 or 2050 temps? The experts were freaking out about global cooling during the 1960s and 1970s when we were supposedly warming from 1900 to present, so it is harder and less precise -wait, hyperprecise but less accurate – than we give ourselves credit for…

Posted by Peaceblove | Report as abusive

Instead of taking the upper bounds for NOAA, I would have taken the median of their ranges, expecting they were giving something like the one-standard-deviation points of a bell curve, with their real prediction in the center. Don’t know if that changes the scoring at all.

Nonetheless, I agree fully with your conclusion – there’s a lot more news to present if there’s a sense of foreboding, which I think drives some of the hype of climate change. I also think that the sun (currently showing signs of becoming less active) has more impact on our ecosystem than most anything us humans can do, and this is often overlooked in many of the doomsday-predictive stories.

Posted by HeissonRob | Report as abusive

So….still thinking that forecast was wrong? Fifth fastest to 11 named storms out of any season in recorded history. This is why you never judge a seasonal forecast before the season is over, Mr. Easterbrook, as you end up looking silly quite often.

I also find it amusing you wouldn’t post the comment I made that pointed out that in making your case, you were disingenuous with the numbers. NOAA’s hurricane season forecasts never give a single number, they give a range, and in some of the cases you claimed they were way off, they were either within the range or much closer.

Sorry, if you don’t want your honesty to be called into question, then be honest, Mr. Easterbrook.

Posted by JCO | Report as abusive

off spirit infertile accepted quiet here there tommorow yesterday presume me

Posted by fancy nancy | Report as abusive

Read the entire post. There’s some genuinely insightful details here.

Posted by pregnancy | Report as abusive

It’s simple, as the WORLD is warming (and please, it’s not on account of co2, but solar activity), the difference in temperatures is muted. Hence, fewer huricanes due to temperature differentials.

Posted by Dijeta | Report as abusive