Politicians Blowing Hot Air on Global Warming, Hurricanes

Published November 1, 2004

The news media love hurricanes. The huge storms usually form far, far away from the U.S. coastline, providing at least a week of stories. And they often start with a bang. Down in the tropical Atlantic, young ones display amazingly low barometric pressures and outrageous sustained winds. Hurricane Ivan’s lowest pressure, for example, would have caused the needle on your home barometer to spin around twice. The resultant “eyewall” winds were a 20-miles-wide tornado.

It’s incredible stuff. But hurricanes usually weaken considerably by the time they get to the states, owing to our more northerly latitude and the fact hurricanes don’t do well when much of their circulation is over land, which has to happen when they approach North America.

Those facts don’t stop the hype machine. While we like to count up property damage and losses, no one mentions the fantastic revenue these storms generate for the media, or that the constant drumbeat of Charley-Frances-Ivan-Jeanne, Charley-Frances-Ivan-Jeanne must have political repercussions.

Blair Off-Base on American Hurricanes

And so, British Prime Minister Tony Blair conflated Hurricane Ivan with dreaded global warming on September 14 while in Washington for a visit with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

I like just about everything about Tony Blair. He’s smart, affable, and a real friend to a nation that needs some. But he’s way off on global warming, and advising Kerry to bail out his campaign with apocalyptic climate hype invites a grilling by the climate truth squad, a rather large body of weather nerds in a weather-fixated country.

Blair’s problem is that he listens to his science advisor, Sir David King, who is one of the most ill-informed hawks on climate change on this greening planet. King actually pronounced the goofy global warming flick “The Day After Tomorrow” as scientifically plausible, which should have completely blown away his credibility. (See “Big-Budget Hollywood Movie Is a Science Travesty,” a review by scientist Sallie Baliunas, in the August 2004 issue of Environment & Climate News.) Now King claims this year’s hurricane activity is a product of global warming and that further warming will make hurricanes worse.

Here’s his simplistic argument: Hurricanes require warm water. Global warming means more of that. Therefore, more hurricanes.

The fact is there’s plenty of warm water for hurricanes every year. Virtually the entire tropical ocean is hot enough, and yet there are only about 10 hurricanes per year in the Atlantic. The real research question is not why there are so many hurricanes, but rather why there are so few, given the massive expanse of warm water available to them.

And here’s the real scientific inconsistency in Blair’s story. The planet warmed slightly–much less than forecast by people like King–in the last half of the past century, but while that happened, maximum winds in Atlantic hurricanes declined significantly.

El Niño a Controlling Factor

As shown by scientist Chris Landsea of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, maximum winds measured by hurricane-hunter aircraft over the past 50 years have declined significantly.

Further, there’s a logical (if lawyerly) argument that pins this salutary change on global warming. It goes like this: Atlantic hurricanes are much more delicate than is suggested by the destruction they cause. One thing they cannot tolerate is a west wind blowing into them, because that wrecks their symmetry. As a result, their maximum winds decline.

El Niño–another climate hype machine altogether–generates precisely this type of wind over the Atlantic. That’s why, in El Niño years, the forecast is for a weak hurricane season.

In the latter part of the past century, there were an unusual number of El Niño years compared to previous decades. Some scientists (like David King) claim global warming is increasing the frequency of El Niño. But if that’s the case, then global warming would be responsible for the decline in maximum hurricane winds.

How much could that be worth? The decline has been about 15 mph since 1950. That’s not a small number, because the force of a hurricane’s wind increases with the square of the velocity. In the high Category Three/low Category Four range, a drop of 15 mph reduces the hurricane’s power by 25 percent. Given that the U.S. experiences about 15 strong hurricanes every decade, and that the average cost is now about $5 billion for one of those hits, you could, if you buy the El Niño argument (I don’t but some others do), thank global warming for saving us about $13 billion per decade.

These numbers won’t stop the hype machine on hurricanes. But you’d think Great Britain’s science advisor would have been sufficiently well informed that he would have kept his prime minister from asking John Kerry to sow the whirlwind.

Patrick J. Michaels ([email protected]), senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, is author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media, released in October.