Three months into what was projected to be a busier than average hurricane season and we have had the year’s first landfalling hurricane in the US. Though a powerful and deadly major hurricane, Ida was not the strongest, largest, or most damaging hurricane on record. Nevertheless, it was more than enough to bring out the climate-change chorus. It happens with every hurricane. Even Elsa, whose brief tenure as a hurricane ended before US landfall was enough to bring on the knee-jerk allusion to climate change. The New York Times story on Hurricane Elsa included, “The links between hurricanes and climate change are becoming more apparent.”
It seems the links between hurricanes and climate change are most apparent to people who have not actually looked at the trends. Or maybe the links that matter more are the ones on websites that take readers to more advertising. Blaming climate change for bad weather has become a journalistic reflex along with the prediction of worse to come. “Worse to come” is great clickbait, “nothing new here” is not. And clicks pay the bills. If you don’t believe me, just follow the money trail that leads back to The Times. The big problem linking hurricanes, (or floods, tornadoes, and hydrologic and meteorologic droughts for that matter) to climate change is the actual data. At least so far, there are no overall trends in any of these weather events even as the world has warmed (modestly and irregularly) over the past century or more.
There has been no upward trend in hurricanes since the late 1800s and no increase in the stronger category three and above hurricanes. This is not some skeptic’s take on hurricanes. In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest assessment report (AR6), it says, “There is low confidence in long-term (multi-decadal to centennial) trends in the frequency of all-category tropical cyclones.” Other research shows the same lack of trend. Some like to point out that there has been an increase in hurricanes since the 1970s, but that is only because the 1970s hurricane counts were near the lowest point of the 20th century. It seems so hard for some to admit the lack of trends in extreme weather that they cherry-pick the endpoints to give the result they so desperately want to believe.
This year, like the last couple of years, much has been made of the number of named storms and how quickly we reach a particular letter in the names list. This might be worrisome, but the apparent increase in named storms is an artifact of observational technology. Many storms, especially the weaker ones, were missed in years past before satellites were regularly used for storm tracking and therefore were never named. Now that we observe more storms, we name more of them. This is good news on the technology front, not bad news on the climate front.
None of this means there will not be horrific hurricanes with a dramatic loss of property and life. There have always been horrific hurricanes and there always will be—regardless of whether carbon dioxide levels rise or fall and regardless of whether global average temperatures rise or fall. That these storms continue, along with the occasional broken record, is not evidence of manmade climate change.
The suffering from Ida and other hurricanes is heartbreaking, but this pain is not reduced by false claims of climate impacts. The weather is erratic. Some years, decades, and centuries are less active than others and some are worse. As much as the Cassandras in news wants to make it sound like it is a worsening trend, the data shows otherwise. They need to get a new hymnal.