Hurricane Warning; McKibben Alert

With Joe Bastardi stating an opening for an east coast hurricane is possible the next three weeks, it might be timely to submit this semi-humorous look at the dangers of an east coast hurricane versus the dangers of heeding Bill McKibben’s Alarmism, from the view of a writer criticizing a writer, rather than a scientist criticizing a scientist.

Guest post by Caleb Shaw

I would like to venture two predictions which I believe have a, (as they say,) “high degree of probability” of proving true.

The first is that a terrible hurricane, as bad as the ferocious 1938 “Long Island Express,” will roar north and bisect New England. True, it might not happen for over a hundred years, but it also might happen this September. The fact is, 1938 showed us what could happen. 1938 set the precedent.

My second prediction is that if such a storm happens this September, it will not matter if it a Xerox copy of the 1938 storm; Bill McKibben will call it “Unprecedented.”

It really makes me wonder: Why on earth would such a seemingly smart person want to make such a total fool of himself? How can McKibben call so many events “unprecedented’ when all you need to do is open a history book, and you can see so many other prior storms set precedents?

It leaves the poor fellow, despite his Harvard education and obvious altruistic impulses, wide open for attack from people far less educated. I could have made mincemeat of his arguments when I was only twelve, (and had very few altruistic bones in my body.)

At age twelve my interest in hurricanes was largely motivated by two things: First, hurricanes made things go crash, smash and boom, and I was the sort of kid who could endure “The Bridge Over The River Kwai,” (including the intermission,) just for the train wreck at the end. (I was not alone. It might not be politically correct, but the entire theater burst into wild cheering and applause, when that train finally, finally wrecked.)

The second reason was that a hurricane might cancel school. I hated school. McKibben apparently loved what I loathed, for he went to Harvard, and there became ignorant where I became wise, for he doesn’t even know what I knew at age twelve: The precedent has already been set. Wicked awesome hurricanes have hit New England in the past.

I hoped they’d happen again, but they never did. When I wondered why not, and studied the subject, (which McKibben seemingly has failed to do,) I ran across books by a meteorologist-historian named David Ludlum, who spoke of the time after 1960 as the “quiescent present.” This suggested there were lulls in the activity of hurricanes in New England, and also active times. In other words, long before I had heard of such things as the AMO or PDO or sunspot minimums, I grasped the concept of “cycles.”

I was disappointed to learn that New England might be spared force-three hurricanes for periods of time so long that people actually forgot major hurricanes ever did more than clip Cape Cod. During such long lulls an amnesia set in: Authorities stated, “New England is never hit by hurricanes,” shortly before the 1938 monster hit. But that was only because they didn’t study the past as David Ludlum did, didn’t know of Saxby’s Gale in 1815, or the Great Colonial Hurricanes of the 1600’s. Those long-ago hurricanes set the precedent, and in many ways 1938 was just a copy.

Because hurricanes refused to happen after 1960, and refused to let me observe disaster first hand, at first I could only quench my boyish thirst for mayhem by reading boring books. I studied how the most powerful hurricanes had wrecked things in the past, and discovered a second thing that McKibben seems oblivious of. It is the simple fact that one of the ways the ecology of an area can be seriously damaged has nothing to do with man: Mother Nature does it.

McKibben seems to feel Nature exists in a steady state, and man is a thug who walks about wrecking things: Nature is balanced, and man is unbalanced. In actual fact the so-called “balance of nature” takes some very wild swings, often at mankind’s jaw, and also at ecology’s. Either Mother Nature is not the prissy twinkle-toes McKibben envisions, or else she has a Brother Nature who loves to splash and crash and smash, just as joyfully as a schoolboy.

McKibben can lecture all he wants about the proper maintenance and care of a forest, but a hurricane can come along and flatten the whole thing in an hour. Thick pines get snapped like match sticks, as anyone who saw what Hugo did north of Charleston can attest to. The same sort of blow-downs have happened, and can happen, in New England. When they happen the so-called “delicate ecology” of a forest gets hammered. The populations of some bugs, birds and beasts crash, as others soar. However this is not “unprecedented.” This is reality.

Perhaps McKibben can be forgiven for failing to understand reality. He grew up in one of those unreal, sheltered places called a “suburb,” where you are protected from nasty inner-city stuff. I grew up in a similar suburb, around eight miles away, and can attest to the fact Boston’s suburbs can bore a boy to tears. Fortunately I grew up eight years before McKibben, and could escape suburbs due to a wonderful form of public transportation that existed back then, called “hitchhiking.” You could go anywhere for free, and it was surprisingly safe (back then,) and all that was asked of you was that you tell tales, and listen to tales.

This enabled me to skip the bother of books. If the ride was long enough, (and I wandered from Montreal to Florida,) I could usually work the subject around to hurricanes, and get first hand accounts, not merely of hurricanes, but of Pacific typhoons. It makes me feel sorry for McKibben, for he got stuck in the rarified armchairs of Harvard and the New Yorker Magazine, and seemingly missed meeting the real salt-of-the-earth people who have been on boats in the bowels of a hurricane, or have fought the floods, or have battled to survive the jackstraw aftermaths. It is from such first-hand-accounts you learn the most, and see the precedent that has been set, and know something of what to expect.

It turns out that if you really want to learn about how a hurricane can destroy an ecology, you should ask a clam-digger on Cape Cod. Back in 1968 you could learn, from such fellows, of the 1938 Long Island Express, the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane, 1954’s trio of Carol, Edna and Hazel, the amazing drenching rains of 1955’s Connie and Diane, of Donna in 1960, and of the pounding surf caused by the bizarre loop of Esther in 1961.

Hurricane Esther 1961 Storm path

I was, of course, green with envy hearing about all the crashing and smashing and splashing I missed (or was too young to remember,) but right then a grizzled old timer would use a word you don’t hear any more, “’Pshaw.” He’d say Esther’s pounding surf “t’weren’t nothing, compared to 1893.”

Look up the hurricane season of 1893, when there were four full-fledged hurricanes prowling the Atlantic at the same time, with a fifth that barely missed making the quartet a quintet. It matched the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season, when 4 Atlantic hurricanes were active on the same day. Then imagine the total fit McKibben would have, if the exact same season happened today. He would insist it was “unprecedented,” and even if it was a carbon copy he would say it was all due to carbon dioxide.

However McKibben would likely then go even further.

It turns out shorelines are mobile things, and that the vast estuaries of salt marsh behind dunes are very vulnerable to the dramatic changes hurricanes bring about. Not only can dunes be shoved inland and smother marshes, but inlets get filled in as new inlets are abruptly gouged, and the brackish water behind the dunes can be made poisonously salty by inrushes of ocean, or poisonously fresh by feet of rainfall, and the ecology of the marsh gets hammered, with crashes in the populations of clams, bay scallops, oysters, and blue claw crabs. But would McKibben blame nature, if such a population-crash happened today? Not likely. He would likely jump to the conclusion man was the culprit.

Actually it turns out that, (once man outgrows his boyish delight in mayhem,) man is not all that fond of disaster, nor of the ruin of ecosystems that his livelihood depends upon. Man actually tries to built dikes and stop the sea. And here is where a real bad entity, according to McKibben, appears: The US Army Corp of Engineers.

(I don’t know where McKibben gets off bad-mouthing engineers, especially when he himself is trying to engineer the entire planet’s climate.)

The simple fact of the matter is engineers are given a thankless and fairly hopeless task: They are asked to control the awesome powers of nature. They, more than anyone else, know how rivers want to meander and shorelines want to shift. Their geologists often write the best papers about the forces of Nature, the power of Nature, the wrath of Nature, and the whimsical ways Nature wants to go the opposite way of ways that makes life easier for man. Unlike McKibben, engineers have first hand experience with how fine-sounding plans and altruistic desires go awry. Rather than “The Law of Unintended Consequences,” they tend to simply call it “Murphy’s Law.” The amazing thing is not that, despite their best efforts, shorelines do shift and rivers do meander, but rather that so many disasters are averted.

One disaster they have managed to prevent (so far) involves the fact that the Mississippi River dumps 406 million tons of dirt at its mouth every year. (I’m not sure how many Manhattans that is.) As the water slows nearing the sea, the dirt settles out, not only building up the delta, but also building up the river’s bed and the floodplains, until the mouth of the river gets to be higher than the river upstream, whereupon the river decides not to flow uphill, but rather to take a new route to the sea. In the case of the Mississippi the new route would be the Atchafalaya River. The Mississippi likely wanted to take that new route seventy years ago, which would have been an economic and ecological disaster for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and the Delta. You don’t just stop delivering 406 million tons of dirt a year, and expect a delta to not wash away, (even as a new delta grows to the west.)

In essence Mother Nature wants everyone to pack up and move. Not merely humans, but entire ecosystems. In the process it will not matter to her if historic districts vanish, along with the habitat of various endangered critters. A few creatures might even be unable to make the shift west, and go extinct, (in which case Mother Nature might get a tongue lashing from McKibben.)

In the face of this perhaps inevitable shift in the course of the Mississippi stand a group of puny engineers, who seem to catch hell no matter what they do. People upstream get mad if they allow erosion to occur, while people in the delta want more than the allotted 406 million tons of eroded dirt delivered each year, and get mad if shorelines wash away. The entire city of New Orleans is settling down into the dirt. Even as attempts to keep it a viable port involve dredging away dirt, dirt needs to be added. Engineers face delightful examples of Murphy’s Law such as the MRGO channel, which was 650 feet wide when dug, but rapidly eroded to 1500 feet wide. Then the very same people who demanded engineers build that channel accused the poor engineers of contributing to Katrina’s flooding.

Before Katrina, politicians demanded more money for levees, but the money strangely vanished in “administering” the levees, and the engineers didn’t get enough to build with. Even more money needed to be spent on lawsuits with environmentalists who didn’t like levees. Prior to Katrina the engineers were pointing out the precedent set by the 1947 hurricane, (and three earlier storms,) and the dangers New Orleans faced if levees weren’t strengthened, but guess who got the blame, when the levees failed during Katrina?

Then along comes McKibben, after the fact, and he states the Katrina was “unprecedented.” She wasn’t. She was only force-three, and a force-four storm had hit New Orleans in earlier times. If anything was unprecedented, it was the bureaucratic bungling of people who were entrusted with preparing for the storm, and also McKibben’s post-storm audacity.

Perhaps McKibben can be excused for using the word “unprecedented” so frequently, because no two snowflakes are alike, and this mean every snowflake is unprecedented, and unlike any snowflake that ever came before. However it is how he uses the word that irks me. He uses it like a bludgeon, to threaten people with, always ignoring factors that might allow people to relax. For example, while discussing Katrina he never mentions that other storms may have been as powerful, when they were as far out to sea as Katrina was when she reached level-five, but back when earlier storms blew up there were no satellites or storm-hunter aircraft to measure such storms with. He often follows his spiel about Katrina with a mention that Wilma, that same season, set “an Atlantic Ocean record for barometric lows,” failing to mention that a sailing ship of the old days could not possibly measure such a storm, because they were destroyed.

None of us wants to be destroyed by a storm, but none of us wants to be panicked into a purchase either, which is what McKibben’s railings often strike me as doing. Over and over he works himself up into a tizzy, promoting a sales-pitch he insists we must accept because “the offer expires soon,” but I’ve endured too many commercials in my time to fall for that, especially when his evidence includes stuff I knew was false when I was twelve.

Part of the sales-pitch seems extremely ungrateful to me. In order to heap up the grotesquely one-sided and inaccurate evidence he employs, he need to get the evidence from somewhere, and often he gets the evidence from papers writen by, or including references to, the very same engineer-geologists he later scorns and derides as being know-nothings.

No engineer wants the humiliation of building something that falls down, and therefore they are constantly seeking how Murphy’s Law might ruin what they build. This involves imagining their constructs being exposed to a worse-case-scenario, and in New England this involves hurricanes. In fact, if you want to become alarmed by what could possibly go wrong, engineers are often the people you should consult. It is due to engineers that much of our knowledge of coastal erosion and other geologies-in-flux exist. It was engineers who first had the need for the core samples from marshes, which show us layers of sand in the peat, which hint of monster hurricanes that occurred before history was written.

New England has a written history longer than other parts of the United States, including a record of floods along the Connecticut River clear back to the 1600’s. Such floods had never exceeded 30 feet, until the 1938 hurricane, whose flood was truly “unprecedented,” for its flood crested at 35 feet above normal.

A simple-minded conclusion would be that floods were getting worse, and levees must be built higher. (Another would be that the 1938 hurricane was a rare, once-every-400-year event, and nothing needed to be done for 399 years.) However the engineers looked into the problem, and came up with an amazing reason for the unprecedented floods. The reason the 1938 floods were worse had to do with the changing fashions of men’s hats.

In the early 1800’s men decided powdered wigs were no longer hip, and stove-pipe hats (such as the one Abraham Lincoln is often pictured wearing) were wicked groovy. These hats were made of the fur of beavers, which were then hunted nearly to extinction in the tributaries and headwaters of the Connecticut River. Thousands of beaver dams, which had formerly held back flood waters, no longer existed, and floods became worse.

Now, where do you suppose McKibben would go with that? Would he suggest engineers build flood-control reservoirs to replace the missing beaver dams? Or would he gnash his teeth about how mankind screws everything up, and how people should be moved out, and their towns be demolished as beavers were reintroduced?

Actually engineers suggested some older dams in New England should be torn down. Water power was no longer as economical as it had been, many old mills had gone bankrupt, and their mill ponds stood behind dams that were not maintained and were crumbling. Some dams had barely held through the 1938 storm. Unfortunately funds were not available, due to a major wars keeping engineers occupied overseas until the Korean War wound down in 1954. By then it was too little too late, as Connie and Dianne hit in 1955.

In parts of Southern New England Connie and Dianne’s rainfall approached two feet, (which was “unprecedented,”) and some old dams collapsed. Forty percent of Worchester was under water, and in places where the Blackstone River usually is seventy feet wide it grew to a width of a mile and a half. Despite the fact the rain was not as heavy to the north, the Connecticut River crested above thirty feet for the second time in its history. Even the meek Charles River reached “unprecedented” levels, and one of my earliest memories is of my mother looking out the window at that river in the back yard as the rain poured and poured and poured, and of her murmuring to herself, “What a rain!”

That got the engineers cracking, and, over the next decade and a half, New England’s system of flood-control reservoirs appeared. I know a little about it, as my grandfather was an engineer, though he was more focused on Boston’s storm drains. I know for a fact he was concerned about the environment, and was downright apologetic about a design flaw in Boston’s system. When the storm drains originally were put in, it was quite normal for sewerage to flow into rivers, and when storm drains were overwhelmed by excessive rainfall the overflow went through the sewer systems, which was a good way of flushing the sewers out, until people started thinking sewerage should be kept separate and be treated. Murphy’s Law had reared its head, and a design which once had been elegant and efficient now had to be reengineered, at great expense to the tax-payer. Mistakes like that made my grandfather cringe.

The new system of flood control reservoirs didn’t make him cringe, because before the man died it had been tested by heavy rains, (which in localized areas were “unprecedented.”) They work. It is highly unlikely the Connecticut will ever crest over thirty feet again. This is not only due to the engineer’s dams, but also due to the fact that beavers, (without asking McKibben’s permission,) have reintroduced themselves in New England, even to a degree where they cause flooding and are a nuisance in the very suburb McKibben grew up in. Also white tailed deer have returned to become a nuisance, eating people’s flowering crabs, and, because hunting them is difficult in such close proximity to picture windows, coyote have returned to eat deer, and also to eat cats and small dogs, and occasionally to snarl at joggers. All in all, suburbs sound a lot more exciting than they were when I grew up, and when McKibben learned to detest them.

Besides controlling floods, engineers have worked with the more reasonable environmentalists to improve New England’s rivers. The tidal basin of the Charles River used to hold dyes from factories up stream, and I can recall, during a long drought that afflicted New England in the 1960’s, that the water in the Charles River’s tidal basin was actually purple. It also reeked. It took guts to be a member of the Harvard crew, and row in that sludge. Now it is clean and the fish are returning. In other rivers salmon are returning, and engineers are working to remove older dams, and to design fish-ladders around dams that remain.

It seems clear to me that we are better off when we work with engineers to foresee what the future’s threats might be, and to allow engineers to take steps that remove the threats, and enhance that which we enjoy.

If a hurricane as powerful as the 1938 monster returns this September, the wisdom of some of our developments will be tested. We have, after all, built cottages on dunes that tend to shift, despite breakwaters, and we have built neighborhoods on floodplains that are called floodplains because they flood, even with flood-control reservoirs upstream. Now that I am too old to enjoy the mayhem I yearned to see as a youth, I’d see it, and also see all sorts of examples of Murphy’s Law.

It is important to consider Murphy’s Law, when preparing for a storm. You prepare for the worst even while (if you are old) you hope no mayhem occurs. There are some things I think New Englanders should consider, but, before I go one word further I should do something McKibben fails to do, and state I am not an engineer. I don’t truly know what I’m talking about.

One thing you’re told over and over, as a writer, is that “you should write about what you know.” It is close to being a Commandment.

Thinking about this, look at the start of McKibben’s essay, “A Deeper Shade Of Green,” which appeared in the August, 2006 National Geographic (which had the tabloid headlines: “No End In Sight.” “KILLER HURRICANES,” and “New Orleans: Home No More.”) McKibben begins with:

“This is the year we finally started to understand what we are in for. Exactly 12 months ago, an MIT professor named Kerry Emanuel published a paper in Nature showing hurricanes had slowly but steadily been gaining in strength and duration for a generation. It didn’t gain widespread attention for a few weeks — not until Katrina roared across the Gulf of Mexico and…”

It may be a splendid introduction and demonstrate McKibben’s skill at writing, but it annoyed the heck out of me at the time, because I’d been expecting, (due to my belief in “cycles,”) the 2005 season to be like the 1933 season, which set the old record of 20 hurricanes in a year. McKibben’s intro gave the impression of being precise, “Exactly 12 months ago,” even while blurring things, “for a generation,” and he failed to mention the precedent of 1933 at all.

However I now notice something else. In his intro McKibben is breaking the commandment, “Write about what you know about.” He obviously hasn’t studied the history of hurricanes, and is only repeating what others have told him. He uses the “appeal to authority,” unaware that if you only repeat what Kerry Emanuel tells you, you are little more than a parrot, and, if Kerry is merely using you, you are in danger of being a puppet. To put it most bluntly, when a writer, even a gifted writer, relies on others rather than himself, he is in grave danger of being nothing but a dupe.

I was already aware of McKibben’s alarmism before that article appeared. After all, the suggestion that Katrina proved that CO2 caused hurricanes was being spoken by Kerry Emanuel before Katrina even hit. It seemed a lie to me for anyone to state that hurricanes had become different, when there were so many examples of precedents in history books. It also seemed, due to my belief in “cycles,” that, if the 1938 hurricane hit five years after the 1933 season, we should prepare for 1938-like monster to bisect New England exactly 5 years after 2005, in 2010. (FAIL.) However what aggravated me most was McKibben’s absurd assertion that the way to prepare for a hurricane was to buy curly light bulbs, wobble about on bicycles, and live crunched cheek-to-jowl like students in a Harvard dorm (even as he himself enjoyed his gentleman-farmer, Vermont country-life.)

Therefore, back in 2006, I decided to out-McKibben Mckibben, and to incite a riot, (or at least alarm,) by yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, but by doing so in a way that didn’t mention CO2 at all. Part of my essay was as follows, (and engineers will have to excuse me for writing about what I don’t know about.)

“…Next time you drive down our shady streets, look up at the electrical wires, and imagine 10% of our beautiful trees blown onto those wires. (On some hills, imagine 100%.) Also understand there are far more trees in New England now than in 1938, (and far fewer roadside elms, which withstood wind better.) We tend to gripe when the electricity is off for six hours. Can you handle six days? How about sixteen? Or even six weeks?

Our builders have displayed amnesia for fifty years, and have built on riversides that were under twenty feet of water, and on dunes that were below raging storm tides, and atop hills that were scoured by winds over a hundred miles an hour. Add some shade trees crashing onto roofs, and we are likely to have some homeless neighbors, if we are not homeless ourselves.

We have also become far more dependant on computers and cell phones. Look carefully at the flat receivers up in cell-phone towers, and imagine them stressed as winds rise past a hundred. (In 1954 the WBZ radio tower was blown over by Carol, resulting in new building codes for such towers.) Will we be able to telephone anyone, after a storm?

Cell phone companies go through great efforts to keep their receivers firmly anchored atop sturdy towers. Receivers must be able to withstand stresses such as thick, heavy, winter ice, for the receivers must be very carefully aimed to transmit correctly. The companies are aware of the power of wind, and competition forces them to try to be better than each other at repairing receivers bent ever-so-slightly out-of-line by hurricane-force winds. After storms their crews race each other to be back-on-line first, transporting mobile generators, and even mobile receivers, however repairs can be slowed if fallen trees and flooding make roads impassable. After a major hurricane one should therefore expect to have no phones for a while, besides having no electricity.

This sort of alarmist talk worries some, if only because they figure insurance companies may raise rates, if they hear about risks. However insurance companies should perhaps worry less about our barking dogs, and instead focus more on the integrity of their own high-rises. Both the Prudential Building and John Hancock Tower in Boston were built after the last major hurricane and before building codes became as strict as they now are. Both structures had design flaws that were exposed after construction, and old-timers can remember the windows popping out of the John Hancock Tower at such an alarming rate that the sky-scraper was more or less sheathed in plywood. Lastly, due to the experience of “The Big Dig,” Bostonians are not entirely confident builders obey codes, even when codes exist and engineers respect them. Alarmists can therefore gloat about the situation insurance companies now find themselves in; after all, one of their skyscrapers falling down does a lot more damage than a barking dog.

Anyone who has been up in high-rises during a gale knows they do sway in a most alarming manner. One then hopes the engineers knew what they were doing, and also wonders what fatigue occurs to the metal and concrete which form a high-rise’s trunk and roots, especially as decades of winter gales blast it, and the swaying building ages. (The 1978 blizzard’s peak winds gusted to 125 mph on Cape Cod.) Lastly, one knows the codes have become more strict, and one then wonders if this means the older buildings are suspect; after all, codes are made more stringent for definite reasons.

In actual fact no engineer wants his name attached to a building which comes crashing down, and the engineering that goes into such massive structures is amazing and, to some degree, reassuring. A building like the John Hancock Tower sticks up like a huge, flat sail, and therefore must have a huge keel, and it turns out high-rises are imbedded into astounding amounts of reinforced concrete. Such buildings are designed to withstand winds 25% higher than the worst ever recorded, in the area they are built.

However, if you are a true alarmist, you hesitate at those words: “The worst ever recorded.” The worst winds recorded in Boston are recorded at Logan Airport, down at sea level. The tops of high-rises thrust up into winds which are far higher. Considering the force exerted by wind increases roughly 100% with every ten mph, construction costs also increase greatly if one builds a structure to withstand a wind only ten mph higher. Besides the pressure of wind, engineers also face the pressure of budgets, and therefore must decide “what they can get away with.” Their decisions have been excellent so far, for wind has never toppled a high-rise, however a true alarmist notes no high-rise has yet been truly tested, especially in the north, where codes are not as demanding. No high-rise has yet faced a direct hit from a F-5 tornado, and Boston’s have never been tested by a major hurricane.

Recalling the words, “the worst ever recorded,” one hurries back to the data, and discovers there is no data involving a worst-case-scenario. A worst-case-scenario would take a major hurricane through Boston’s western suburbs; when Donna took that route in 1960 it had been downgraded to tropical-storm status. The next closest pass was the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, however it passed to the east, with its most devastating east-side winds away from Boston, over Cape Cod. The worst hurricanes of the last 30-year-stormy-cycle, the 1938 storm and Carol in 1954, both passed west of Worchester; however the 1938 storm, even with its center over the Connecticut River, was still able to sustain winds of 73 miles per hour, with gusts to 87, at Boston’s Logan Airport. One wonders what it’s winds were like at the altitude of Boston’s high-rises, and a true alarmist glances south to the summit of the Blue Hills, just south of Boston. At an altitude of 681 feet, on September 21, 1938, the Blue Hills anemometer registered steady winds of 121 mph, with gusts to 186.

If one transposes the tracks of Carol or the 1938 hurricane east, so they pass through the western suburbs of Boston, the city’s high-rises would be exposed to tremendous stresses. When I asked an engineer whether such buildings were designed to withstand winds of 186 miles per hour, his reply was, flatly, “No.” He did add that it was likely a high-rise’s windows would give out before the steel beams, and stress would be greatly reduced once the wind could pass through the structure, rather than around it. I found this reassuring. It is much better to have glass, copiers, office desks, computers and filing cabinets raining down onto the streets of Boston, than to have it be entire buildings….”

Well? Does my writing out-McKibben McKibben? Are you alarmed? Should I be selling insurance?

At the very least my essay should provoke a response. Hopefully it will provoke preparations other than buying curly light bulbs, if a hurricane starts up the coast and, unlike Irene, doesn’t dawdle over cold shelf waters, but rather stays out over the warm Gulf Stream, accelerates northward to over 50 mph, and only hooks inland at the last minute, like the 1938 monster.

However my writing likely also deserves the response of a good slap-down from engineers, and I deserve to be told to practice what I preach, and to “stick with writing what I know about.”

If McKibben would only write what he knows about, he might avoid saying foolish things, like he did last year when he stated Irene had Global Warming at her core. The joke of it was that, due to dawdling over cold shelf waters and ingesting drier air from inland, Irene’s eye wall collapsed and she soon didn’t even have a core. Was McKibben subconsciously stating Global Warming’s core was a nothing, like Irene’s was?

If McKibben wrote what he knows about one thing he would write about is what growing up in the suburbs of Boston was like. I actually strongly agree with a lot of his views on that subject. Suburbs were suppose to be a green paradise, but always struck me as a hollow vacuum. However just because I don’t like them, and moved on, gives me no reason to outlaw others from choosing to build them and live in them, should they desire to do so. Instead I should state what I find objectionable, and describe an alternative. McKibben does this rather well, but doesn’t seem to like the fact people ignore him, and do what they please. It’s a free country, but at times he seems to disapprove of freedom.

McKibben should also write autobiographical books, one describing Harvard when he attended it, and another describing the New Yorker Magazine and the changes it went through when he worked there. Those were two weird worlds, and I’m sure people would be fascinated.

Of considerable interest would be another book about the world of environmentalists. He wouldn’t have to say whether he feels his trust was misplaced, or whether he feels his considerable talents were misused, or whether Emanuel played him for a dupe. A simple description of the world where some scientists got rich as others went hungry, and some writers got fame, fortune and flattery as others knew poverty, would suffice.

However one thing McKibben absolutely should not write about is the subject of hurricanes. It only makes him look odd, like Paul Revere galloping down the streets in the dead of night shouting, “Buy curly light bulbs! Buy curly light bulbs!”


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Luther Wu

Your scenario proves once again that it’s Bush’s fault.
/ <sarc tag, ok?

David Ross

The only thing that is “unprecedented” is the alarmists’ wilful ignorance/air-brushing of past weather events. My personal favourite to counter such lunacy is the great Paris flood of 1910. You can view some good pics here.
By the way. Who is “News Staff”? Oddly anonymous for an article written in the first person.

It is a generic author account. Sometime used for guest posts or other news articles. As shown clearly in bold, this article is by Caleb Shaw but he doesn’t have a WUWT author account. We’ll fix that and get him one. – Anthony


Shock Troops of Disaster, eh? What of the “Great Flood of 1936 mentioned in the news reel? Nice article Caleb. Out-McKibbens McKibben to be sure. For now anyway 🙂

Caleb Shaw: It was a pleasure to read. Thanks.

son of mulder

If it doesn’t happen then it will be a travesty that we can’t account for the missing hurricane.

Pull My Finger

The guy in the newsreel has a really bizzare accent. Like Irish-Canadian.

Owen Weldon

“That’s Unprecedented!”
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”


Xerox copy? Carbon copy? What be this bizarre terminology? This is unprecedented!

Richard Keen

I know several meteorologists out here in Colorado whose careers began when the likes of Carol and Hazel excited their lives back in ’54; like me, they are now retiring. I was summering in Wildwood, NJ, that summer, and as Carol skipped by some 50 miles offshore I frolicked in the flooded streets with the other kids. It was just like the scene in that great book, “Isaac’s Storm”, with the kids playing in the swamped streets of Galveston a few hours before the eyewall came in. Unlike 1900’s Galveston storm, Carol missed a direct hit on Wildwood, and I and the other kids continued to play the next day. Back in 1815 a similar storm did make a direct hit on the same location, but there was no Wildwood then.
A few weeks later Hazel enthralled me by trashing half the trees in my neighborhood in Philadelphia, halfway between destroying coastal towns in the Carolinas and passing through Toronto to become Canada’s greatest ever natural disaster.
A few years later I read Isaac Cline’s “Tropical Cyclones” in the school library; Cline himself – the Isaac of the Galveston storm – died on August 3, 1955, the day Hurricane Connie formed in the Atlantic on its way to Pennsylvania.
There have been no storms the likes of Hazel, Carol, Connie, 1938, 1815, et al. since. When inevitably there are, they will, of course, be “unprecedented”. That’s why in the eyes of the believers, aka the warmers, the history of the earth begins in 1970. No dust bowl, no 50’s hurricanes, no Galveston hurricane, no Jeffersonian warm spell in Virginia, no Medieval warm period, no Holocene optimum, no Eemian interglacial, no Carboniferous. For them, the Creation was in 1970, probably on April 22 (Earth Day).

Decision-makers should listen to us, the engineers. They don’t.
The price for such folly will be paid.
We now have high rise buildings along the US gulf coast where hurricanes will most assuredly wash them away.
The good news is that hurricane frequency is declining as carbon dioxide increases. One can only wonder if that inverse relationship will continue.

Manhattan under water, for real:
Those of us near Columbia, including NASA GISS, are way above the evacuation zone.

Richard Keen

Correction… The early Wildwood hurricane was 1821, not 1815. The 1815 storm was more like the 1938 Long Island hurricane.


“Open a history book?”
Now THAT’S ‘unprecedented’!

AJB says:
August 21, 2012 at 9:42 am
> Shock Troops of Disaster, eh? What of the “Great Flood of 1936 mentioned in the news reel?
I was going to jump on Caleb about that miss, I needed to go back to my copy of Ludlum’s “The Country Journal New England Weather Book”. We can also get some pretty serious summer rains not related to tropical storms. Some twenty years or so ago there was an event that threatened to fill some of the smaller flood control reservoirs.
Suffice it to say, 1938 provided the convincing data that flood control dams would be important enough to sacrifice a few towns. They’re important enough so that Massachusetts usually remembers to pay for part of the system as they are a major beneficiary in their part of the Merrimack river valley.
Also, I think the most remarkable aspect of the heightened hurricane activity that started in 1995 is that the New England Coast has not been clobbered by a major storm. It may be unprecedented. D’Aleo and Bastardi may agree with me about that.


I am an engineer and all I have to say is… well said!


It’s nice to read a well researched article. Maybe if the CAGW “scientists” did a little more research about past weather events, they would have a better perspective.

> Considering the force exerted by wind increases roughly 100% with every ten mph, construction costs also increase greatly if one builds a structure to withstand a wind only ten mph higher.
Nope. This varies with the square of the wind speed (modulo various confounding factors). So the wind force (drag is the better term) increases 100% with every 40% increase of wind speed. From 25 mph to 75 is 9X the force, 25 to 100 is 16X the force.
See for good notes foucused on antenna design.

Louis Hooffstetter

Miss Cleo, my psychic friend just told me that McKibben and others are already rehearsing their “unprecedented hurricane disaster caused by AGW” stories. They only need the name of the next storm and the damage estimate$ to fill in the blanks. She also tells me they’re praying for the ‘as yet unnamed’ tropical depression east of Guadeloupe to reach Category 5 and smite Florida (like the hand of Gaia) during the Republican National Convention.

Keith AB

As my son might say . . . Kewl.
Thanks Caleb.

Paul Marko

What a well contructed (“killing me softly with his song”) critique. Total enjoyable read.


Such a refreshing blast of common sense balanced with a razor sharp evisceration of one of the leading buffoons of the “Global Warming, We All Gonna Die, Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” cabal.
A most enjoyable read, many thanks sir.

Julian Flood

Re Esther:
She went strange at the point where she hit the coastal current which runs along the eastern seaboard of NA. Interesting. Now what could have caused that?

John Garrett

Mr. Caleb Shaw:
It’s always a pleasure to read something written by someone who knows how to write.

Jeff L

Thoroughly entertaining! Hope to see you post again on WUWT


Fred says:
August 21, 2012 at 11:56 am
Such a refreshing blast of common sense balanced with a razor sharp evisceration of one of the leading buffoons of the “Global Warming, We All Gonna Die, Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” cabal.
A most enjoyable read, many thanks sir.
I respectfully concur.
No stranger to litotes – or vitriol – I wish I had written an article (for anywhere, anything; Net or print) half as good.
Hugely appreciated.

Dan in California

Thanks for the excellent essay. I was in southeastern PA in the summer of 1972 when hurricane Agnes dropped by. Lots of local flooded creeks with some houses under water. The Susquehanna river went from a mile wide and a foot deep to a mile wide and 8 feet deep. In upstate NY, the Chemung river swelled and flooded major portions of Elmira and Corning. But back then, it was just weather.
You ask: “(I don’t know where McKibben gets off bad-mouthing engineers, especially when he himself is trying to engineer the entire planet’s climate.)” A possible answer is that he is tired of being ridiculed by engineers and took this opportunity to strike back – poorly. I’m an engineer and I know many others. As a group, we are good at seeing through baloney and getting to the truth in things natural. I know not a single engineer who buys into the AGW hoax. And, unlike scientists, engineers are less afraid to voice our disdain for the warmers. (one reason I hide behind a pseudonym is because I work for a NASA contractor and could get my employer into trouble. It’s either that or don’t post here at all)


If mcfibben read this all the way thru
If mcfibben understood even half of it
That would be Ùnprescedented!

Doug Proctor

“… the deniers of climate change are among the most scientifically literate members of the general population…. This is not so much because they reckon they are smarter than the experts, but because they are able to pick the experts who agree with them.” See Climate Depot on the blog about us having to have a religious type attitude to “save the planet”.
How does McKibben write what he does? The above quote (not by him, but related) sheds light on the answer. The warmists are able to recognize confirmation and belief bias in us skeptics without realising it applies as equally to them. The warmists come from a fixed position of moral right that guarantees their technical truths (or at least truthiness). They are like the priests of armies facing each other on the battlefield who tell both sets of combatants that God and Right are on their side.
Whatever McKibben believes in the moment has been sanctified by his sense of moral righteousness. He can say “unprecedented” because what is today is different from what was. Comparisons are invalid: in the past lightning caused forest fires, yes, but today Satan (or his fossil fuel Imps) set them, so THESE fires are unprecedented. Without Satan these would not have happened, for the natural problems of yesterday were statistical flukes, while those of today are certainties based on the actions of the devil.
I have read of similar arguments against the “deniers” of witchcraft in the 15th to 17th century: those outside the mainstream view are self-serving and selfish it’s-not-my-problem types, self-delusional, dupes of rhetoric and intellectualism, or in league with the Devil himself. For McKibben CAGW is a fact, as witchcraft was for James Ist of Scotland.

MAtthew Epp

I too am an engineer and I thank you for your writing which gives just a glimpse into the engineers world. We are always asked to build a Taj Kahall with a dog house budget and in the end, the owner is never satisfied.
We had a storm 3 summers ago, a 500 yr event, for our town, that flooded streets and overwhelmed the storm sewer system. The system ws designed for the 100 yr event. Home owners complained that the city should have built better storm sewers, and how their money was wasted and squandered. Truth is we can design and build a system for a 1000 yr event, but who wants to pay for it? And when the system is never fully utilized, homeowners will complain that we wasted their money on a system that was too big. Either way the thought always ends with comments such as “stupid engineers, I could tell you that wouldn’t work” or some such simile. Although we live a thankless unappreciated life, we know our value and our worth to society as a whole.
Thanks for the praise, we appreciate it.
On a side note (and not at all weather related) one of my favorite movies is Apollo 13, because the heroes were engineers, working behind the scenes, doing their jobs and the boys made it home safely.
Matthew R. Epp P.E.

MAtthew Epp

OOPs Fat fingers Taj Mahal


Simply excellent. And I believe you can still vote for “Prat of the Year” and McKibben is in the running. Vote and see my comments.


I was a resident of the Eastern Gulf States…I’d be watching closely the track of Isaac. Further west track = stronger storm.


Any British bookies taking bets on Isaac this far out?
I see a chance to lose some money. ☺

Jack Denial

It’s unprecedented .. CO2 makes hurricanes turn clockwise …

Gunga Din

I’m not sure if that was a writing lesson, a history lesson, an engineering lesson or a meteorological lesson. But it was a lesson that needs to be heeded.
(PS “Man actually tries to built dikes and stop the sea.” Should be, “Man actually tries to BUILD dikes and stop the sea.”)


clipe says:
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
August 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm
Any British bookies taking bets on Isaac this far out?

Apologies for not considering the plight of those who may be imminently or shortly endangered by Isaac.

David A. Evans

Nice essay Caleb.
Perhaps mother nature has a 12 year old son circa every 120 years?

Chuck Nolan

Is this a southern hemisphere hurricane? Are the bands are going the wrong way in McKibben’s pic?

John F. Hultquist

Very interesting. Thanks.
At age twelve my interest in hurricanes was largely motivated by two things: First, hurricanes made things go crash, smash and boom, and I was the sort of kid who could endure “The Bridge Over The River Kwai,” (including the intermission,) . . .
At the age of about 10 (mid 1950s) my cousin and I were sitting on a ridge of over-burden from a western PA strip mine. We were watching his dad, my uncle, run the dragline and uncovering the coal seam. In the distance, beyond the machine we saw trees falling over and seconds later we felt the wind. We headed for the house about a half-mile away. I ran down the slag heap and across the front yard, my cousin about 100 feet ahead of me as we passed under a large tree in the front yard. The tree began to fall as I passed its trunk and it followed my path as I ran out from under it. Since then I have not been fond of being near things that go “crash, smash and boom.
For the record, the movie you mention in the above quote uses the word “on” while the book used the word “over.” One of life’s little mysteries is why do I know that? — And I have no idea.

Great fun, and well written, too!


This article states “No high-rise has yet faced a direct hit from a F-5 tornado.”
The Lubbock Tornado (1970) was an F5 tornado. It made a direct strike on the Great Plains Life Building. This 20 story building was heavily damaged. It’s structure was twisted as a result. One man, I forgot his name, figured out how to straighten the structure. He bought it for a song, removed bricks in the right place and the building straightened out. After renovation he re-opened it as Metro Tower. It is still occupied today.
The Lubbock Tornado was one of several that Ted Fujita used to establish his F scale for tornado intensity. I went to one of his lectures while I was at Texas Tech in the mid 70’s. I was fascinated by his discovery of sub-vertices within a large tornado. I do not know if one of these struck the Great Plains Life Building.
Another interesting outcome of the Lubbock Tornado was the establishment of a program to study the structural damage a tornado would have on buildings. They did this by building a gun to shoot 2×4’s into brick walls. This was originally located in the Civil Engineering Building on the Tech campus. It is now located in a research park where Reese Air Force Base was.

Wonderful essay, Caleb Shaw, just a stunning rebuke to the ahistorical alarmists who hysterically proclaim the ending of the World that apparently began only thirty years ago. Bravo!
I assume, by the way, that by ‘Worchester’ you mean the city of Worcester, just 20 miles west of where I am right now—in the suburbs, unfortunately (but on a canoe-able river, the Sudbury).
/Mr Lynn


Thank you for the interesting essay.
There sure seem to be a lot of engineers commenting. 😉


What a blast to come home and see the article I submitted this morning actually got published!
Whenever I get the itch to write I tend to get in trouble, because the lawn goes uncut, and other responsibilities get neglected. Therefore I’ve been rushing about today trying to make up for the fact I’ve been hiding out in my study way too much, the past week.
My wife, who has to put up with my fits of irresponsibility, was glad to see me come to my senses, glad the lawn got mowed, glad an urgent bit of book-keeping got attended to, and glad to see me charge off to do other chores involving the upkeep of our small business. I confess I slowed down a bit, once I was out of her view, but she herself slowed her usual efficient pace, doing something unusual for her, which was to check out WUWT.
She was surprised by how swiftly my submission appeared in print, and delighted by the flattering comments. I am very grateful to everyone, for the kind comments are helping me get out of the dog house.
I’ve only had time to glance through the comments, and doubt I’ll have time to properly address a lot of them, but will try to do justice to a couple of old friends.
RE: Ric Werme says:
August 21, 2012 at 10:54 am
Hi, Ric. You never can resist anything involving New England history, can you? Hope people check out your website, which is wonderful.
I’d forgotten the name of Ludlum’s, book, “The Country Journal New England Weather Book.” My large, paperback copy fell apart years ago, but if you find your copy you’ll see a lot of my facts came from that source. I’m pretty sure you’ll also see that 1936 flood was a “spring freshet,” and involved heavy snow-cover being melted by warm and heavy spring rains.
I got Ludlum’s book because I subscribed to his magazine “Weatherwise,” back in the early 1970’s. Back then it was the only way you could get the sort of information we get so easily on the web today. Each issue had, at the back, the day-by-day weather maps of the prior month. It was like the Weather Channel was when the Weather Channel first came on the air. If you had the geeky desire to obsess about weather, it soothed your craving.
I’m not sure what became of my Weatherwise magazines. Maybe they are still in my attic, or maybe they fell apart, like Ludlum’s book. But at least they lasted longer than my computer, which occasionally crashes and deletes all the links I so carefully save. All that I am left with is a clutter of trivia in my brain, some of which is fact and some of which is urban myth.
Thanks for setting me straight about how the force of wind increases with the speed of the wind. In the unlikely case I’m ever rich, I’ll hire you to fact-check what I write.
Newspapers used to fact-check every article before it saw the light of day. Sadly, that seems to be a lost art.
RE: Bob Tisdale says:
August 21, 2012 at 9:56 am
Thanks, Bob. Praise from the praiseworthy is praise indeed.
I hope people check out your site and your book. You have used the years wisely, since I first noticed your name, which I think was on the Accuweather site, back before WUWT existed.
I don’t know what happened to that site. It has been moderated into a boring echo-chamber. I doubt Brett Anderson is to blame, because he was always too polite, too kind, and perhaps too timid, to moderate at all. Therefore that site, back then, always struck me as a sort of barroom brawl. It was the only place where Alarmists and Skeptics could really duke it out. The true moderation was the fact you had to wait hours, or until the next day, to see your comment appear. In many ways the moderation, in the end, was often supplied by the people doing the commenting. I found it great fun, and spent half of my time offending people, and half of my time soothing the people I had offended. You were one of the few quiet and sane voices, as I recall.
I really enjoyed all the debate which Accuweather encouraged. Part of my day was to check out the “Weather Warriors,” and watch Joe Bastardi and the late Ken Reeves go nose to nose. It didn’t seem to matter if they were arguing about some blip on a map that likely wouldn’t even happen, because it was on day nine of a ten-day-forecast, Joe would insist it would pump-a-ridge that would dig-a-trough, and Ken would insist it would dig-a-trough that would pump-a-ridge.
I enjoy debate, and think it would be fun if Bill McKibben would comment here, and do his best to kick my butt for saying what I’ve said. It would be healthy, because I’m not perfect, and he would help me see where I am mistaken. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect he will comment.
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect Bill or any of his group will respond to your excellent work either. You use their data, and produce observations rather than theory, but will likely get a no-response.
You deserve better.

Great article.
I have no doubt that the Climate Alarmists and media will feed upon the next hurricane that heads towards the U.S. shores claiming it to be a sure sign of climate change “just as predicted” and the “new normal”. This despite the longest break ever between Catagory 3+ hurricanes hitting the U.S.
Tropical Storm Isaac is the next candidate as it is currently heading towards Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It is forecast to become a hurricane and possibly head blow through southern Florida.
Predictable headlines and media attention to follow…

Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis and commented:
Long article, but well worth your time. The movie is absolutely worth your time, all of it. Puts a lot in perspective. The move is a news reel made in the 30s right after the 1938 New England hurricane. It talks about the WPA in rather glowing terms, as might be expected of a prewar news piece in depression era USA. Though perhaps propaganda, there is an honesty and respect in the commentator’s voice. Again, the movie is something you owe to yourself to watch.

Dan in California

“Thanks for setting me straight about how the force of wind increases with the speed of the wind.”
Sorry about being anal retentive, but the force of the wind goes with the square of the speed.
Drag = 1/2 rho * v2 * Area * drag coefficient. Engineers….. sheesh.

Thank you Caleb , some of the best writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Thank you Anthony for having him here .

Brilliant. Sure to silence the Pepperazzi and close the Gates. Speaking of which, I seem to have noticed a paucity of those kinds of posts lately.