A nation of weather weenies?

Published April 1, 2000

Our reaction to normal weather events prompts the following question: Is panic the price of eternal vigilance?

Over much of America, everyone seems to think that the crystallization of two-tenths of an inch of water will create a famine beyond comprehension. Faster than you can say “40 percent chance of snow,” stores run out of bread, milk, batteries, beer, and weenies. The result, of course, is the bare shelves people feared in the first place.

Every year, literally hundreds of low-pressure systems form on the fronts that waggle up and down the screen on the 6 p.m. weather report. So almost every night, it seems, the Weather Channel features a “storm watch,” accompanied by music more appropriate for Desert Storm. Whoever gets the short straw is sent to the back of the plane to get video of the wind blowing. (Too bad there’s not a “Good Weather” channel. Newscasters would sign up in a heartbeat, and go to Tahiti for footage of the Trade Winds.)

Then there’s the problem of weather-caused absenteeism. When he was a mere Master’s student, now-University of Virginia professor Robert Davis calculated the percentage of federal employees who stay home per inch of snow. Note that there are plenty of these employees scattered throughout the country (see the nearest “federal building” for an example). Davis found that–surprise–the place with the most no-shows per inch is none other than our Nation’s Capital. No wonder Davis is now one of the more prominent “skeptics” about the disaster-ability of global warming.

Why are we so sensitive? The natural (and libertarian) impulse is to blame the federal government, and that may be correct. But our heightened anxiety may in fact be the overhead that results from good intentions and good results.

For any populated place, the United States has the most violent weather on the planet. It is the only place where the warmth of a tropical ocean (the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic on the other side of the Gulf Stream) and polar cold are separated only by a barbed-wire fence. Virtually everywhere else there is some mountain range or other physical impediment that mitigates this clash.

The differential buoyancy of warm and cold air means that when they meet, huge areas of upward motion must develop. Because the planet is a spinning sphere, this creates all kinds of circular motions. Some are low-pressure systems, and some are tornadoes. The United States has more tornadoes than every other place on the planet combined.

In the early 1950s, two struck northern cities–Flint, Michigan, and Worcester, Massachusetts, with massive loss of life. The reaction to these disasters ultimately led the Weather Bureau and its progeny to create a spectacular detection and warning system. Nongovernment people saw advantage in disseminating the information (people tend to turn on the television when they think the weather is going bad), and the Weather Channel became highly profitable. This combination has also saved a tremendous number of lives.

Along with more violent weather, the United States can boast more citizens with direct access, via television or computer, to radar and satellite information that now resolves at the level of a large farm. How many lives does this save?

In 1925, before weather radar, television, and the notion that saving lives can be very profitable, the “Tri-State Tornado” roared through the lower Midwest, leaving 695 dead and thousands injured. It racked up these totals mainly by passing through farmland. In 1999, a similarly powerful long-track storm barreled through central Oklahoma, only this time a big city–Oklahoma City–was in the way.

Take the death rates from the Tri-State Tornado and adjust for population density to see that, any way you look at it, without our combination of federal monitoring and private dissemination, the 1999 tornado would have killed thousands more than it did.

In 1900, a Category 4 (out of five) hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, marking the first U.S. experience with a big storm hitting a built-up barrier island (Nags Head, North Carolina, please pay attention). Seven thousand people died. In that case, as Isaac’s Storm, Erik Larsen’s riveting account, shows, the authoritarian nature of the federal bureaucracy prevented a hurricane warning from being issued with enough lead time to get people to the mainland.

We have learned a lot since then. In 1999, some 14 Category 4 or 5 storms later, Hurricane Bret ripped into the Texas Gulf Coast and directly killed not one person. (Two people drove their car off a bridge in Brownsville.) It is fair to say that never before in weather history has such a large storm claimed no victims. Sure, it managed to land on one of the few remaining shoreline locations that isn’t heavily condoed, but the fact is that without the current warning system, dozens would have died.

In other words, there’s a lot of weather to be scared of around here. It’s just too bad that we haven’t learned to discriminate between the deadly and the inoffensive. Next time the forecast is for a few inches of snow, stay away from the grocery store and go to work. Honest, it won’t kill you.

According to Nature magazine, University of Virginia environmental sciences professor Patrick J. Michaels is probably the nation’s most popular lecturer on the subject of climate change. Michaels is the author of Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming.