Crozet Weather Almanac: August 2017

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Charts Courtesy Heidi Sonen/Roscoe Shaw

Hurricanes Are Back

The United States was lucky enough to have the longest stretch in history without the landfall of a major hurricane. The streak lasted 4,324 days, or almost 12 years. This lucky streak was twice the previous record but simply could not last forever. Harvey made landfall in Texas to break the streak with devastating consequences.

As we write this, hurricane Irma promises to be a different type of storm in different places but perhaps equally horrific. Good luck has turned to bad, but this is not unexpected. Hurricanes have always been devastating and often come in bunches. September 12 is the most likely day of the year for hurricanes to strike with the vast majority of severe hurricanes coming between August 1 and October 15.

Charts Courtesy Heidi Sonen/Roscoe Shaw

Global Warming & Hurricanes

A great deal of talk has re-emerged about hurricanes and global warming with these recent developments. We hate to even mention the subject because for some crazy reason, the science has become terribly politicized. One mention and people start hating, even if all we do is cite science. But global warming is no hoax and the theory of stronger storms in the future is founded on fundamental physics.

The basic theory goes like this… humans burn fossil fuels and that releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. All else being equal, it is well known that CO2 warms the air and water. Hurricanes thrive on warmer water so warmer water could produce more and/or stronger hurricanes in the future. This all sounds very plausible, even likely given the thermodynamics.

But, science isn’t so simple, especially when dealing with an insanely complex earth/atmosphere/ocean interactions. All kinds of unknown feedbacks happen in a chaotic, non-linear system.

In order to confirm the theory is correct, we need observational evidence that matches the theory. Fortunately, there has been no increase in hurricane activity (see chart). The earth also has had no increase in floods, droughts, tornadoes or heat waves. I say fortunately, because this is very good news. On the other hand, this by no means proves that it won’t happen. The lack of hurricane trend merely means that so far, the theory lacks confirming evidence.

This is very important because scientists must refrain from hyping a theory with enormous implications and then promote it as fact without supporting observations. The scientific junkyard is littered with well-intended, seemingly plausible theories. The saturated fat debacle comes to mind in this regard. For a generation, we were urged to shun saturated fat and that “all scientists agree.” All the major health organizations backed this idea from the food pyramid to the American Heart Assoc. to the World Health Organization. Now, the “saturated fat causes obesity and heart disease” mantra has been almost entirely discredited. In the meantime, Americans adopted low-fat, high-sugar diets which led to serious public health repercussions.

Even if there is a small increase in hurricane energy, it probably pales in comparison to the threat posed by the massive number of people and their property moving into harm’s way. Florida had just two million people in 1945 and now there are 21 million. This has been made possible by modern meteorology. In the old days, living in Florida was simply crazy because giant hurricanes arrived unannounced. Now, transportation and information improvements allow people to escape the wrath. Heidi and I are appalled at the National Flood Insurance Program which encourages people to build in harm’s way and then uses taxpayer money to bail them out after the inevitable disaster. We love a great beach house, but let’s not encourage people to build and then make other people pay for the repair and to have it happen again.

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