What You May Not Know About Our Hurricanes - TribPapers

What You May Not Know About Our Hurricanes

Photo by Mario Caruso.

Asheville – Hurricane Ian is in the history books, having unleashed its Category 4 fury on southwestern Florida. Even as the area slowly rebuilds, the devastation and tragedies will linger now and in memories for years to come. Ian was the latest of 123 hurricanes to hit the Sunshine State since official record keeping began in 1851. Climate change is “rapidly fueling super hurricanes,” a Washington Post headline proclaimed. “I grew up [in Florida] and these storms are intensifying,” a well-known newscaster insisted. Rising temperatures in the atmosphere and ocean are making hurricanes “stronger, slower, and wetter,” a reporter asserted. They’re becoming more frequent and intense, multiple commentators pronounced.

It is stated that hurricanes are gaining strength more rapidly because of fossil fuels. The phenomenon even has a fancy name: “rapid intensification.”

Unfortunately, this claim cannot be proven or disproven because we didn’t have technologies to measure how rapidly certain storms intensified even a few decades ago. But are “rapid intensification” and these other assertions supported by actual evidence? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides the complete record of all hurricanes that struck the continental United States (made landfall), 1851–2021. It offers fascinating insights and reveals surprising short-term and recurrent cycles, but does not provide data to support claims of any recent trends, such as more frequent and intense, or stronger, slower and wetter.

Among its revelations is the sheer number of hurricanes – hundreds of them, many of which struck multiple states before dissipating, returning to pound other unlucky states, or heading back out to sea to maul the Caribbean or Atlantic islands. Florida appears to have been hit more often than any other state. Also surprising is the number of times New York and other upper-atlantic states got pummeled. “Superstorm Sandy” (2012) was barely a Category 1, about which so much was written, but New York State and Manhattan have been inundated by them as far back as 1869, including two Category 3s, in 1954 and 1985.

Another northernmost cyclone, Fiona (barely a Category 2 when it hit Nova Scotia on September 24), was quickly branded Canada’s “strongest and costliest cyclone on record.” It may have been costly – for the same reason today’s US hurricanes are: extensive, expensive development along coastlines. But the powerful 1775 Newfoundland hurricane caused storm surges up to 30 feet high and killed over 4,000 people; it’s still Canada’s deadliest natural disaster.

Returning to the southernmost USA, Florida was absolutely slammed by five Category 4, two Cat 3, one Cat 2, and four Cat 1 hurricanes in just six years. Thankfully, it was October 1944 through October 1950 before coastal development took off. But the loss of life was still horrific. Imagine those twelve hurricanes punishing the state’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts today. It could happen. More recently, Florida was pummeled by one Category 2, one Category 4, and six Category 3 hurricanes in just 15 months, from August 2004 to October 2005. Some would call that an upward trend (doubtless due to global warming). However, not a single hurricane of any magnitude hit Florida during the following eleven years.

Even more startling, during the nearly twelve years between Wilma (Florida, Category 3, October 2005) and Harvey (Texas, Category 4, August 2017), followed two weeks later by Irma (Florida, Category 4), not a single Category 3-5 “major” hurricane struck the US mainland, anywhere. That’s an all-time record, surpassing the previous nine-year record, set in 1860–1869. Equally amazing, the USA didn’t experience a single Category 5 hurricane until 1935. The next three struck in 1969, 1992, and 2018. All but Camille hammered Florida. Either these monsters truly didn’t exist before 1935, or we just couldn’t measure wind speeds above 156 mph until the 1930s.

The NOAA records reveal, and experts like Roger Pielke, Jr., can find, no upward trend in hurricane frequency or intensity. There are cycles of multiple monstrous storms, interspersed with stretches of few or no major hurricanes, or any hurricanes at all. However, one will find no discernable trends.

Hurricanes are really, really big, rough movements of wind and water that can wreck havoc with our best hopes and plans, but a proper perspective of why they come, how often they come, and what if anything we can really do about them is what we should attempt to learn. A careful study of history is often the best place to begin.

Publisher’s Note: Special thanks to Pal Driessen for his contribution to this article.