Pielke Jr. on Hurricane Sandy – 'not the new normal'

Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr. has authored an excellent essay in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that put the kibosh on the “new normal” meme seen here . As Pielke clearly shows, hurricanes like Sandy are not the “new normal” and the data tells us the USA is in a hurricane “drought.”

So how can today’s disasters, even if less physically powerful than previous ones, have such staggering financial costs? One reason: There are more people and more wealth in harm’s way. Partly this is due to local land-use policies, partly to incentives such as government-subsidized insurance, but mostly to the simple fact that people like being on the coast and near rivers.


To put things into even starker perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall—Carol, Hazel and Diane—that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.

While it’s hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane “drought.” The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.

See his full article here. Highly recommended.

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November 1, 2012 9:07 am

Twas caused by the global cooling. Keep ur eyes on the T ball.

November 1, 2012 9:12 am

I remember someone -possibly Joe Bastardi who said this is part of a late season patten that was
similar to the 1954-55 pattern… good post..

Mike Bromley the Canucklehead
November 1, 2012 9:24 am

Very level-headed article. Can RP Jr. please talk to the Freak Factor and get them to quiet down? Doubtful. And that’s too bad, because they get the lions share of the attention.

Michael Bentley
November 1, 2012 9:25 am

So, the WSJ thinks you’re a Mr. I guess all the work you did for a phD doesn’t count. Or it could be because you’re from the midwest. /sarc/
A mighty fine essay – but will they read it?

November 1, 2012 9:28 am

The “Climate Change is real” meme is so central to plans for political Transformation as the rationale why it is necessary that this storm is just too big an opportunity not to exploit. Remember this was all supposed to happen in the 90s while it was poorly understood. 1987 Brundtland Commission Report followed by 1992 Rio Summit and all the accompanying Ed initiatives that were poorly understood but very much an integrated part. Then Gore lost. Then Kerry Lost. And by 2008 when the US component cranked up fully again when Obama won (it had continued unabated in other parts of the world as Transformational Outcomes Based Education), the known facts were in the way of full acceptance of the political theory.
And the Belmont Challenge and the Future Earth Alliance all assume Obama would have 8 years. Does anyone think a Romney Administration would continue those usurpations? So we have panic and emotion and great visuals and so we get Sandy misportrayed.
This is a quote from a Tuesday Ed Week Column: “people are thinking broadly about how to address the roots of the economic crisis which lie in the unsustainable development path we are presently on, a path premised on the insatiable consumption of our natural resources and control of the world’s wealth by the 1 percent.”
When that nonsense is on the brain of a well-connected Educator looking for Political Transformation via Dewey’s democratic education, you know just how completely all of this modelling and theories and AGW initiatives and ed “reform” were to statist power aggregation and continuation schemes.
And it is all slipping away and a bipartisan insistence on education and Climate Change may be the best bets to quietly continue the Transformation if Obama fails in his reelection bid. So his supporters are trying to lay an emotional foundation for that contingency while the pain is fresh and the visuals tragic.

John F. Hultquist
November 1, 2012 9:30 am

Great information and well presented. Back years ago, one of the storms did $100,000 damage. And as a 6 year-old I would go to the corner gas station and buy cigarettes at 26¢ per pack – for my mother. And within a few hundred dollars, our last car cost the same as our first house.
As an aside, this morning it is widely reported that many folks in the path of H. Sandy did not have sufficient stockpiles of “necessities” to get them through 3 days without re-supply. And they can’t find batteries or gas for the generators. New Jersey police are now stationed at gas station to keep issues from developing. If you know a guest is coming for 3 or 4 days maybe you ought to lay in a few provisions. I’m having a hard time being sympathetic.

John F. Hultquist
November 1, 2012 9:38 am

Michael Bentley says:
November 1, 2012 at 9:25 am
“but will they read it?

The WSJ is the largest selling paper in the US but its readership probably does not include “the Freak Factor” mentioned by Mike in the comment above yours. Likely doesn’t include folks from the O. Administration, either.

Alan the Brit
November 1, 2012 10:28 am

Think I have said this before, but insurance companies can always supply data in support of increased costs of storm damage over time by their expenditure to cover the damages making it look like costs have increased due to more storms caused by Global Warming! Revised insurance policies that would have covered partial value of goods damaged & or lost to storm/flood damage are now covered by “new for old” policies, ergo insurance costs increase dissproportionately! Couple this with more wealth in more areas over the same time-frame, it all looks pretty convincing on the surface. Simples!

November 1, 2012 10:35 am

Author Whitley Strieber claims that this is all part of the Coming Global Superstorm he wrote about years ago. Regardless of whether or not he is mad, somebody should take a look at his point of view on it and possibly even challenge him on the science – or get him to calm down. He spreads panic like no (day after) tomorrow on his website and everybody laps it up. Put forward the point of view that man is not responsible for all of the world’s woes and he goes ballistic. He is convinced that we are going to experience what happened in that film. That we are all going to die.

November 1, 2012 10:38 am

Roger’s analysis is as always clear and targeted to the point. He clearly points out although does not state, George Santayana was absolutely correct in his admonishments about remembering history.

November 1, 2012 10:48 am

WUWT ought to be trumpeting much louder that the damage from Sandy is purely a failure of preparedness rather than a result of a particularly large storm. Sandy was little more than a strong autumn gale, and if appropriate sea defences had been in place would have caused little damage worth mentioning. For example, there has been absolutely no investment in new sea defences for NY, despite massive increases in the economic value of the land at risk.
The airports show what should have happened – minor disruption as the floods came in, followed by the waters receding, a quick clean-up, and back to work.

November 1, 2012 11:15 am

Steve Goddard has been making the same point for a long time (the drought).

John West
November 1, 2012 11:16 am

If only all “warmists” were as sensible as Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr., perhaps there could be a real debate on AGW. I get the impression his opinion is not that much different than most of us “deniers”, differing mostly on magnitude. But alas “warmists” are almost invariably “alarmists” and even worse they’re usually advocates of a particular policy approach in response to AGW to the point of demonization of even the slightest hint that any other approach might be acceptable. This rabid advocacy only serves to politicize the science, galvanize “camps” or “schools of thought” that can be used for political leverage by ideological organizations and institutions, and slow the actual progress of scientific knowledge and understanding.
I applaud Dr. Pielke for not taking that path and thank him for publically standing up for rational policy making. [Sound of clapping in the background.]

November 1, 2012 11:29 am

As a guy who lived in Houston for 18 years, I find the hype around this storm fascinating. This storm was barely a Category I hurricane and the highest rain fall totals were recorded in the New Jersey and Maryland and yet we persist in talking about Sandy as a “monster” storm. Historically there are plenty of hurricanes that have hit New York city area with more wind speed and rain fall, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_York_hurricanes. I think if we learn anything from this storm is that New York city is ill prepared for storm surges. I don’t think anyone is surprised with the damage to beach front communities in Maryland and New Jersey. Unfortunately these communities suffered the same consequences as other beach front communities in the path of a hurricane. It is interesting to speculate how much more damage would have occurred to New York City if Sandy was a Category III hurricane with 10 inches of rain fall. Blaming the storm on global warming is a pretty good example of distracting people from the failures in disaster preparation.

James Ard
November 1, 2012 12:55 pm

Minor quibble, Pielke’s piece ran in today’s wsj.

November 1, 2012 5:17 pm

Note that these are the number of events and not the costs due to more people and property.
The trend obviously shows there are more events involving storms, floods, mass movements, and climatical events such as extreme temperature, drought and forest fires over the 30 year time period.
The data comes from a reinsuer who insures insurance companies around the world.

Brian H
November 1, 2012 8:15 pm

The strength of the storm is not merely a matter of Category classification, but extent. Also, the core depression: ~940mbar, so provided a big sink for surrounding highs to feed. Indeed, it got fed massively by cold air from beyond the Arctic Circle after landfall, on its western edge, and so kept a-spinnin’.
Simplistic comparisons to past hurricanes are a FAIL.
On the longer-term trends, the simplistic argument should be advanced, however: the anthropogenic influence has contributed to the paucity of severe weather and damaging hurricanes, and should be encouraged and enhanced. 😉

November 2, 2012 4:24 am

Blaming Global Warming means lessons are not being learnt. Same thing happened with Katrina… I did a case study on New Orleans in Geog A Level 4 years before it happened. To keep the story short, everyone in the class understood how much of a disaster New Orleans is bound to become when a reasonably strong hurricane hits it dead on.

November 2, 2012 4:42 am

Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis.

November 2, 2012 7:50 am

Gary Lance says:
November 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm
Note that these are the number of events and not the costs due to more people and property.

But the number of hurricanes and tornados has increased over the decades primarily due to increased detection. The tornado-counting agency adjusts its figures for this inflation. Munich Re didn’t.
The increase in the number of forest fires is partly due to politics. In Russia, Putin disbanded the country’s forest-fire fighting service, with the result that an unprecedented number of forest fires followed. In the US, the increase in the number of forest fires is partly due to failures of the past and the present. (Funding for air tankers has been cut.)
There have been many threads here disputing the claim that disasters are becoming worse or more common, notably by Pielke. Here’s one:
AR5’s draft takes a noncommittal position on the matter, one commenter here has reported.

November 3, 2012 3:59 am

Roger Knights
November 2, 2012 at 7:50 am
“The increase in the number of forest fires…..”
Has there actually been an increase in forest fires?
There was this in 2007: http://environment.about.com/b/2007/05/25/global-warming-linked-to-rising-number-of-us-forest-fires.htm
“Forest fires in the Western United States have occurred more frequently, burned longer, and covered more acres since 1987—and global warming is a big part of the underlying cause—according to a research paper published in July 2006 by the journal Science. The report compared 1987-2005 with the previous 16 year period and said the results were unequivocal”
But there was this in 2008
This Utah report of wildfires and their causes, studied 2000 years of charcoal records, (that’s a lot of barbecues).
“This …study suggests that, during the last 2,000 years, global fire activity was highest between 1750 and 1870. “This was a period when several factors combined to generate conditions favorable to wildfires,” said Marlon. “Population growth and European colonization caused massive changes in land cover, and human-induced increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations may have started to increase biomass levels and fuels.”
“Our results strongly suggest that climate change has been the main driver of global biomass burning for the past two millennia,” the researchers concluded. “The decline in biomass burning after A.D. 1870 is opposite to the expected effect of rising carbon dioxide and rapid warming, but contemporaneous with an unprecedentedly high rate of population increase.”
Here’s an interesting site: The Global Paleofire Working Group
“A long-accepted paradigm is that of the ‘noble savage’, whereby indigenous peoples lived in harmony within a pristine wilderness, with little or no significant impact upon natural ecosystems. However, increasing evidence for extensive, large-scale landscape modification is leading many archaeologists to argue that the very notion of ‘virgin’ forests is a myth, and that prior to the Spanish Conquest, forests, grasslands, and savannas were heavily managed using fire, transforming a once pristine wilderness into a ‘cultural parkland’ (Heckenberger et al. 2003”

November 4, 2012 1:35 am

About 20 years ago I was interviewing for a job at Brown, in R.I.
Part of the process was ‘house hunting’. The realtors were honest enough to mention that hurricanes were a possible occurrence (likely since I’d asked about local weather threats…) and for various houses we discussed things like proximity to ocean, was the heat from on-site oil tank, what trees were likely to lose limbs, etc. (I pointed out that, being from earthquake country, having a few days notice for hurricanes was remarkably civil of them 😉
The bottom line was that they were WELL AWARE that MAJOR hurricanes had landed, and will land again, in coastal New England.
Now 20 years back was closer to the 1950’s than now, perhaps by enough that folks still remembered. But I’d have expected more folks to be familiar with that history, even today…
Listening to the “4 walling” of news of “superstorm” and “new normal” and “climate change” was nearly nauseating in that it impressed on my just how much power was present in “the power of stupid”. Yes, this was a big storm, but as others have pointed out, not even a Cat 1 at landfall.
So why all the damage?
Well, other than the obvious of inflation (in the 1960’s you could by a house for $7,000 that sells for $90,000 today. I know as I sold said house…) there’s such things as Federal Flood Insurance that has encouraged a “whole lot of stupid” with folks putting houses all over the barrier islands (that ought to be called ‘migratory sand bars’…)
Look at about 1890 and 1990 pictures of lower Manhattan. Notice that a load of docks, piers, dirt and such has been turned into high rise buildings? Now realize that lots of them have very deep basements. Now realize they were “bright” enough to put all the mechanics and power feeds, meters, switch boxes, etc. in the basements…. Think it is going to be harder to recover a 50 story building with 3 stories of basement full of mechanicals soaked in salt water than to recover a wharf and dock area? Or a 5 story stone building?
The bottom line is just that a “whole lot of stupid” was applied to decisions of what to build, and where to build it. For the same reason that I do NOT own one of the homes built right on top of the fault lines (one friend did, and had damage in Loma Prieta quake. I had no damage.) I also would not buy an ‘ocean front property’ on the Atlantic Coast.
For those wondering, I did get offered the job, and had a house in mind about 5 miles inland; but the family was unwilling ot make the move, so declined.
On the nightly news they had a lady sobbing about the damage to their home and how it was all gone and what a horror it was… who about 30 seconds later said “No, not leaving. We’re going to rebuild. Just look at the gorgeous ocean view!” To quote Ron While “You can’t fix stupid.” …
Now I’ve got no complaint about folks with a bucket of money building a house on a sand bar in front of hurricanes as long as they foot the bill when the wind and waves wash it all away. Doing it KNOWING that is the risk. But with Federal Flood Insurance picking up the (subsidized) tab, they don’t get the message that “this place is un-insurable” and it’s a very bad idea to build here.
So, IMHO, a very large part of the “increased damages” needs to be laid at the foot of stupid building practices encourage by the existence of Federal Subsidized Flood Insurance. (For the pedantic: Yes, technically it is in massive shortfall and not an actual subsidy. Not much difference in practical terms. Underpriced insurance put on the Chinese Credit Card by the Feds. Same effect.)
FWIW, my belief is that we’re doing a ‘repeat’ of the ’50s for this decade in terms of weather patterns. Then I think as the solar funk deepens, we’ll do a repeat of the early 1800s. That means some significant cold, but also some sporadic hot weeks, as the “loopy jet stream” alternates the hot and cold lobes. I think we’re also entering the end of the drought of major storms hitting New England and this will not be the last; but rather the first in 50 years… And it is all completely natural and all ‘been done before’…

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