In a typically misleading Forbes op-ed, James Taylor ignores the many ways that global warming has affected hurricanes, did affect Sandy, and will worsen hurricanes in the future. Emerging science shows global warming can affect the storm surge, extent, precipitation, and path of storms, all of which contribute significantly to the damage toll.
[James Taylor is a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute and writes a weekly column for Forbes — not the singer-songwriter James Taylor.]
The following is a guest post by Climate Nexus (text in PDF format here):
James Taylor Misleads on Hurricane Claims, Discounts Sandy Victims
In a typically misleading Forbes op-ed, James Taylor suggests we should “thank global warming for softening the blow of Hurricane Sandy.” He begins with the sweeping claim that “Any way you measure it… global warming is having no impact or a beneficial impact on hurricanes.” However, instead of following his own advice and looking at all ways of measuring hurricanes, he focuses only on a few narrow characteristics of past hurricane trends. He ignores the many ways that global warming has affected hurricanes, did affect Sandy, and will worsen hurricanes in the future. The important factors he completely overlooks include:
- Sea level rise: Climate change has contributed about eight inches to sea level rise, giving Sandy’s storm surge a crucial boost that allowed it to reach an additional 83,000 people in New York and New Jersey (according to an upcoming paper accepted by the journal Earth’s Future). Those 83,000 people might take issue with the idea of thanking climate change for its effects on Hurricane Sandy. The trend towards rising seas will continue, lending destructive power to future storm surges.
- Storm size: Taylor attempts to refute the idea of any trends in hurricane intensity. However, he uses the Saffir-Simpson scale, which is based entirely on wind speed. Hurricane winds can cause damage to trees and buildings, but storm surges have caused more deaths during hurricanes than any other factor. As James Brinkley, a member of the National Hurricane Center’s storm surge unit, recently told LiveScience: “There is no relationship” between wind speed and storm surge. Scientists are beginning to realize that other factors like storm size have a more significant impact on the storm surge. Sandy fits into this pattern — it was especially massive, with a radius of 207 miles of hurricane-force winds. Nearly 1,000 miles of the East Coast were hit by tropical-storm-force winds.
Warming was likely a factor in this large size. Dr. Jennifer Francis told Joe Romm that the abnormally warm sea surface temperatures at the time of Hurricane Sandy “set up the strong pressure gradient between Sandy and the blocking high that caused the enormous expanse of tropical-storm-force winds from Delaware to Nova Scotia.”
- Precipitation: Likewise, precipitation has a major impact on flooding, and global warming appears to be causing the extreme precipitation associated with hurricanes and storms to increase. After Sandy hit New York City, Dr. Kevin Trenberth explained in an op-ed: “The sea surface temperatures just before the storm were some 5°F above the 30-year average, or “normal,” for this time of year over a 500-mile swath off the coastline from the Carolinas to Canada, and 1°F of this is very likely a direct result of global warming. With every degree F rise in temperatures, the atmosphere can hold 4 percent more moisture. Thus, Sandy was able to pull in more moisture, fueling a stronger storm and magnifying the amount of rainfall by as much as 5 to 10 percent compared with conditions more than 40 years ago.”
- The jet stream: The Arctic is warming disproportionately fast compared to the rest of the planet, and this appears to be causing changes to the jet stream that may be affecting hurricane patterns. For example, when Sandy was moving up the East Coast, a large wave in the jet stream’s path pushed Sandy farther north than it would otherwise have been able to travel.
- Future warming: Inconsistent record-keeping can make it difficult to understand exactly how global warming has affected past hurricane trends. However, we are much more knowledgeable about the future of hurricanes as the planet warms. The recent and comprehensive IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) concluded a “likely” increase in both wind speed and rainfall rates associated with tropical cyclones as warming continues over the next century. Individual studies have found much stronger results, including Dr. Kerry Emanuel’s recent paper published after the cutoff for inclusion in the AR5. Emanuel found that Atlantic named storms have increased their activity since 1995, and will increase in both frequency and intensity as warming continues.
Taylor’s argument boils down to an assertion that it’s difficult to discern a trend in hurricane wind speed or frequency over the past century, therefore we should be thankful for global warming and unconcerned about its future impacts. The five factors listed above show just how illogical that conclusion is. Emerging science shows global warming can affect the storm surge, extent, precipitation, and path of storms, all of which contribute significantly to the damage toll. As warming continues, these factors are only projected to worsen. That’s an excellent reason to take action against climate change — not to be thankful for it.
Some earlier posts by Climate Nexus: