From the US Department of Silly Statistics (ncdc.noaa.gov) comes this news flash: Since 1980, Texas has had more billion-dollar weather events than any other US state. For example, Texas had over four times as many billion-dollar weather events as neighboring New Mexico.
They fail to mention the fact that Texas is over twice as large as New Mexico and has thirteen times the population. Duh!
Reminds me of the farmer who complained that his brown horses were eating nearly twice as much as his black horses. It turned out he had twice as many brown horses!
Texas is the second largest US state (only Alaska is larger) and second most populous (only California has more people). So, despite the dark shading in the above graphic, Texas extreme weather events are not the worst in the nation. When corrected for size, population and infrastructure, other states face greater weather-risk.
So, what is the point of the above graphic? I have no idea. Ask NOAA!
THE SMART PHONE VIDEO EFFECT
I happened upon the ncdc.noaa.gov website while doing research for a presentation on what I call the “Smart Phone Video Effect” – the impact that now ubiquitous smart phone video cameras have had on news reporting.
My theory is that we are seeing more main-stream media reporting on extreme weather disasters because amateur videos are free, available in quantity, near real-time, and quite exciting given all the gore and destruction! Furthermore, weather disasters support the media agenda and focus on the effects of climate change, and the contention they are human-caused and rapidly increasing . (The smart phone video effect may also be distorting our perception of police-involved shootings, political protests, and many other things, not least being cute animal adventures.)
ARE EXTREME WEATHER EVENTS ACTUALLY INCREASING?
Well, the image below, from the NOAA website, seems to indicate a significant increase, but does it stand up to close analysis?
The Bar Graph seems to indicate a considerable increase in extreme weather since 1980. The first five years (1980-1984) average 2.6 Billion-Dollar Disaster Events per year, while the last five (2011-2015) average 10.8, a four-fold increase.
However, that is a distorted story. Note that the height of each bar is based on the NUMBER of billion-dollar disaster events of various types each year, NOT the cost of those events.
Some events, such as “Tropical Cyclone,” average $16B each, while others, such as “Severe Storm,” average only $2.2B each, a factor of seven. The image to the right, from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/summary-stats, shows the large variation in average costs per disaster type.
Combining them in a bar graph as if they are equal reminds me of the “50/50 Horse and Rabbit stew” – one horse and one rabbit!
Also, the yearly COST (indicated by the gray and black lines), while corrected for CPI (Consumer Price Index – basically inflation) does NOT take into account the increase in infrastructure since 1980 due to greater population and larger homes, businesses, and industrial facilities.
US population has increased by 42% since 1980 and infrastructure under risk from extreme weather events has increased even more than that. One indicator of this growth is that GDP per capita, corrected for inflation, has nearly doubled since 1980. Thus, infrastructure has increased far more than CPI.
Thus, if extreme weather events are indeed increasing, it is not by very much!
WHAT IS CLEAR REGARDING CLIMATE-RELATED CHANGES?
I’m reasonably certain of several significant climate-related changes over the past century:
- Global Temperatures have certainly gone up. Perhaps not the 0.8 ⁰C since 1880 claimed by the official Climate Team, but at least 0.6 ⁰C.
- Since 1979, when reliable satellite-based measurements of lower troposphere temperatures became available, temperatures have certainly climbed between 0.4 ⁰C to 0.6 ⁰C.
- Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels have certainly increased by at least a third (to about 400 ppmv from less than 300 ppmv). Perhaps half of that increase is due to human activity.
- All else being equal, increased atmospheric CO2 must increase surface temperatures, because the Atmospheric “Greenhouse” Effect is real.
- There may be counteracting effects, such as increased cloudiness due to increased evaporation from warmer ocean surfaces, and we know that daytime clouds have a net cooling effect.
- Furthermore, the statistical “pause” in warming has persisted through continued increases in CO2 levels.
- Nevertheless, I think it is reasonable to accept that some percentage of the warming over the past century is due to human activity. What percentage? I’d say at least 10% and perhaps as much as 30%, which would be 0.1 ⁰C to 0.2 ⁰C.
So, accepting Global Warming, some of it due to human activities, what can we say about an increase in extreme weather events?
Of the eight types of extreme weather events identified by NOAA, I cannot imagine how Global Warming can be responsible for Freeze and Winter Storm!
However, perhaps an argument can be made for Global Warming exacerbating some of the remaining six types:
- Flooding– Well, according to our Watts Up With That “Extreme Weather” Page, precipitation in the contiguous US has increased by 6-7% per century (but year-to-year variation is +/-15%). The worldwide increase in precipitation is about 2% per century (with year-to-year variation of +/- 5%). Thus, it is reasonable to ACCEPT that precipitation is trending up and, therefore, some flooding events are possibly due to Global Warming and thus partially attributable to human activities.
- Drought– At first glance, it seems contradictory that Global Warming could be responsible for both Flooding and Drought. However, the slightly higher surface temperatures that increase evaporation and thus provide the water necessary for increased precipitation could dry out some areas and thus increase Drought. Rain does not always fall in exactly the same area where the water evaporated!
- Wildfire – Given a slight increase in Drought, there could be a bit of increased likelihood of “Wildfire.”
- Severe Storm and Tropical Cyclone. Again, according to our Watts Up With That “Extreme Weather” Page, there are about 500 EF1+ tornadoes in the US per year. However, there does not appear to be any clear trend over the past 50 years. On the other hand, strong to violent tornadoes (EF3+) appear to be DECREASING over the past 50 years. US hurricanes have no clear trend, but global hurricanes since 1978 appear to have a slight DOWNWARD trend. Global tropical cyclones since 1971 appear to have no trend. Thus, it is reasonable to REJECT the assumption that severe storm and cyclone events are due to global warming, and to reject any human responsibility for them.
So, are extreme weather events actually increasing?
Perhaps Flooding events have slightly increased due to greater precipitation. Possibly Drought and Wildfire events are increasing a bit as well. The other event types are most likely not increasing, or, if they are, it is not due to Global Warming.
If so, how much of that increase is due to human activities versus natural variability not under our control?
Perhaps 10% to 30% of the Global Warming since 1880 is due to human activities. Thus, some small percentage of Flooding, Drought and Wildfire events have been increased a bit due to human activities.
If we are responsible for some of that increase, what can and should we do about it?
I do not think we should risk wrecking our economy with drastic, costly energy “solutions”that might cause more damage than a slight increase in extreme weather effects. Obviously, we should not build homes, businesses, or industrial facilities in flood plains. We should reduce the danger of wildfires by prescribed burning of underbrush to deprive future fires of the fuel they need to become wild. It makes sense to conserve energy and encourage development of renewable sources such an solar, wind, water and bio-waste. It also makes sense to encourage development of cleaner domestic energy sources including gas, oil, coal, and nuclear.