Are Hurricanes Blowing Climate Change Skepticism Away?

Trees bend in the tropical storm wind along North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard as Hurricane Irma hits the southern part of the state on September 10, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the storm “Barry” looks to make landfall near New Orleans, with the states of Louisiana and Mississippi in its path, it’s expected to drop nearly two feet of rain on low lying areas in the U.S. along the Gulf. We should revisit the debate about whether or not tropical storms, hurricanes and the highest categories of these devastating squalls are on the rise, an element of climate change put forth by a majority of scientists.

To be sure, there are still skeptics like U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who denies that climate change is happening, yet has had to deal with its consequences with expensive bailouts.

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To evaluate the situation, I updated evidence from prior studies, including data from the 2018 hurricane season, and looked, for the first time, at what’s happening in the Pacific, and not just the Atlantic.

The Evidence on Hurricanes

The last 20 years have seen its share of severe hurricanes batter American coasts. From 2000 to 2019, we’ve seen the number of hurricanes in the double-digits every year except for two (2009, 2014). Moreover, we have seen more than 20 of these at the Category 3, 4 or 5 level hit the United States, causing major damage. Names like Hurricanes Michael, Harvey, Maria, Matthew, Sandy and Irma have devastated the places where they’ve hit, the same way Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, Ivan, Rita and others did from Texas to New Jersey.

But not everyone’s convinced of the danger. “You know, I think it’s weather patterns, frankly. And you know, and they change, as I said. It rained yesterday, it’s a nice pretty day today. So the climate does change in short increments and in long increments,” said Perdue last month.

Perdue has certainly had to spend much of his short tenure explaining to a lot of farmers how they’ll need relief from all of these hurricanes that have battered our nation’s agriculture, from these aforementioned storms and other damaging ones. It’s billions here and billions there in taxpayer relief. Perhaps it’s not just a little rain here and a little rain there.

“Snowstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes have been around since the beginning of time, but now they want us to accept that all of it is a result of climate change,” Perdue added.

The former Georgia governor raises a valid point. We’ve had hurricanes in the past. Are their numbers on the rise? Are they getting more severe? Or is this all just some… weather patterns?

Back to the Future for Bad Storms

To test this, I looked at the data from the National Hurricane Center, and the results explain not only what’s wrong, but also show that there is a solution.

There were major hurricanes well back into American history on the Atlantic side. Back in the 1860s, there was just one major storm (one Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane). That number jumped to seven in the 1890s, a year before the 1900 storm that leveled Galveston, one of the deadliest days in American history. The number of powerful storms came down to five, a decade before the Key West storm of the mid-1930s and the one that battered New England a short time later. Those were dark days in American history. Another nine big hurricanes hit the U.S. in the 1950s.

Then, the number of major storms subsided 30 years later, down to five in the 1980s. But this decade is a different story. We’ve already had eight big category hurricanes to hit America, and the decade isn’t even over yet. Moreover, many of the most expensive storms to crush American coasts have happened in the past 20 years.

Major Atlantic Hurricanes

It’s not just the severe ones on the rise. The overall average number of storms fell from the 1950s to the 1980s, then bounced back to higher levels in the 2010s. This goes for tropical storms and hurricanes, as well as the major hurricanes too, on the Atlantic side.

Atlantic Storm Decades

As industrialization increased so did the number of hurricanes throughout history. But after the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and environmental reforms in the 1960s and 1970s, we saw fewer hurricanes, and less severe ones. But as we’ve chipped away at these rules, and other countries began their own massive industrialization, the conditions for bad hurricanes have returned, with deadly and expensive consequences. Perhaps that’s why a majority of Republicans, and not just Democrats and Independents, now believe in climate change.

The Pacific Hurricane Zone Is Less Peaceful Too

In prior articles, I’ve documented how these powerful storms have wreaked havoc across the Atlantic.  But does that mean the Pacific is quieter, as the “well, it rains in some places, but not others” theory goes?

To test this, I returned to the National Hurricane Center (NHC) to investigate the Pacific. And the news isn’t good. From 1995 to 2003, there were an average of 12.44 storms per year, with most of those occurring in the 2000s. From 2010 to 2018, we saw an average of 17.89 Pacific storms. The number of severe storms jumped from a 1995 to 2003 average of 2.89 to 6.22 annually from 2010 to 2018. In fact, the NHC results never listed any major hurricanes from 1995 to 2003; I went in to determine whether any showed even a flash of a Category 3, 4 or 5 on the maps. That’s right… I made it harder on climate change theory by doing so, and the results still showed more Pacific storms in recent years—and a big jump in the most severe types.

Pacific Hurricane Decade

Bringing back those environmental laws will do more than just give us cleaner air and water, relief from hotter temperatures, and fewer deaths and health maladies for American citizens. They may also reduce the onslaught of these severe storms, saving U.S. lives and taxpayers a bundle in the process.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here.

Are Hurricanes Blowing Climate Change Skepticism Away?