Let’s prepare for past climate instead of bickering about predictions of climate change

Summary: Another post about our FAILure to learn from experience. During the past decade scientists have given scores or hundreds of warnings that we’re not prepared for the re-occurrence of past natural events.  While we bicker about the possibility of future climate change, we remains poorly prepared for normal extreme events. Articles on the FM website have discussed solar storms, mega-tsunamis, and massive volcanoes. Today we look at the latest warming: about storms. The past has brought storms far larger than anything we’ve seen in the modern era. Let’s prepare for their return. Katrina and Sandy were warnings we have FAILed to head.

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher (member of Berkeley Earth; bio here), a comment posted at Climate Etc.


“Heightened hurricane surge risk in northwest Florida revealed from
climatological-hydrodynamic modeling and paleorecord reconstruction.”

By Ning Lin et al in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 27 July 2014.
Excerpt (citations omited; red emphasis added).

Storm surges and associated waves are responsible for much of the tropical cyclone (TC)-related deaths and damage. Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record, killed more than 6000 people in that country alone, largely due to its storm surge. Storm surge was also a major cause of the over 138,000 fatalities during Cyclone Nargis (2008), the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s history.

Recent U.S. TC surge events include Hurricane Katrina of 2005 in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused over 1800 fatalities and more than $80 billion in damage, and Hurricane Sandy of 2012 on the Northeastern Seaboard, which caused over 70 fatalities and more than $65 billion in damage. As the most fatal and destructive aspect of TCs, storm surges exact a heavy toll on society. Moreover, coastal populations and sea levels are both rising — a combination that ensures that coastal communities will become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges, which themselves may also intensify under the changing climate. Mitigation of future TC surge disasters requires us to understand the risk — the scale and probability of TC inundation events.

The main obstacle to assessing the risk is the shortness of the historical/instrumental TC record (over a few decades up to a couple hundred years). As a way to extend the hurricane/typhoon records to prehistory, paleohurricane research has emerged as a promising tool for reconstructing long-term TC activity. Identifying and dating TC-related deposits in coastal environments makes it possible to estimate the frequencies of intense TCs at a site and determine how they may have evolved over thousands of years. Such records also provide unprecedented access to natural evidence on hurricane-climate relationships.

… We demonstrate this approach of combining climatological-hydrodynamic modeling and historical and prehistorical records to study surge risk by applying it to the Apalachee Bay area on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Storms, then and now.

… the storm model was constructed using observations from only the last two decades of the twentieth century (1981–2000), which may have been unusually favorable for North Atlantic hurricane activity compared to the previous decade.

… The preservation of these event beds with significantly more coarse material than any of the recent beds suggests more intense hurricanes producing higher levels of surge than those documented historically. …

Ning Lin et al, Journal of Geophysical Research, 2014
Look at those storms! From Ning Lin et al, Journal of Geophysical Research, 2014. Click to expand.


Understanding the frequency of hurricane-generated storm surges is a necessary step toward interpreting sediment-based records of hurricane activity and variability as well as quantifying the risk that these events pose to coastal communities. The climatological-hydrodynamic method presented here relates the frequency of surges to their magnitude and provides an estimation of surge flooding risk for Apalachee Bay.

The 100 year, 500 year, and “worst case” events are estimated to be about 6.3 meters, 8.3 m, and 11.3 m, respectively, at Bald Point and about 7.4 m, 9.7 m, and 13.3 m, respectively, at St. Mark.

Both the climatological-hydrodynamic modeling and the overwash-deposit-based long-term reconstructions indicate that Apalachee Bay is far more susceptible to TC surge than historically observed. The mean return period of the extreme events with estimated surge levels above 5 meters is about 40 years in both climatological-hydrodynamic modeling and the geological record, whereas it is about 400 years according to the historical storm database. Thus, due to its limitation and biases, relying on the historical storm record may greatly underestimate the risk of extremes for Apalachee Bay and, likely, for other coastal areas.

… Statistically significant clustering of large event beds in the Mullet Pond record suggests that changes in global or regional climatic boundary conditions likely played an important role in driving the temporal variation in extreme hurricane inundation over the last several millennia. Thus, significant temporal variability in the probability of extreme hurricane-induced inundation has occurred over this interval. In comparison to the last several millennia, the historical interval of the last few hundred years has been anomalously quiescent with respect to the most extreme hurricane-induced inundation event.


Extreme Weather
We know what lies ahead

For more information.

One thing that has changed: “Hurricane Forecasts Have Become Much, Much Better Since Katrina“. For more about the current debate in climate science about the see “Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis That Greenhouse Warming Is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity” by Judith Curry et al, Bulletin of the Am Meteorological Society, August 2006.

To learn about the political failures that created the disaster see “The Slow Drowning of New Orleans” by Michael Grunwald & Susan B. Glasser, Washington Post, Oct 2005.

Please like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, and post your comments — because we value your participation. For more information about this vital issue see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Especially see these posts about climate forecasts…

  1. More about the forecast for flooded cities in the late 21st century.
  2. Looking into the past for guidance about warnings of future climate apocalypses.
  3. Checking up on past forecasts about climate change, a guide to the future.
  4. Nine years after Katrina, climate activists have earned their reward. We might pay dearly for it.
  5. Ten years after Katrina: let’s learn from those predictions of more & bigger hurricanes.



28 thoughts on “Let’s prepare for past climate instead of bickering about predictions of climate change”

  1. For those interested: I made an overview on this subject (which I will update at the end of the year with the 2014 numbers). See: http://www.euronet.nl/users/e_wesker/atlhur.html

    A conclusion at the bottom:

    “As the number of hurricanes is quite constant this leads to the conclusion that – except the Atlantic and Caribbean basin – there is no clear increase in tropical storm activity.
    One cannot draw from this the conclusion that there is no link between a warming climate and the intensity of tropical storms. There are good thermodynamic reasons to expect such a link to be present. However, there are probably other factors – e.g.: think of wind shear and the thickness of the warm water layer in the tropical oceans – at play which currently prevent a rise in intensity.”

    Mazzel & broge, Evert Wesker
    FM Note: Evert Wesker is an Exploratory Researcher at Shell Global Solutions. See his C.V.

  2. I am an insurance agent and property owner who has been through several hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. Storm surge is not the leading cause of property damage. Windstorm and wind driven rain losses out-cost storm surge related losses by a factor of ten, in the USA. Storm surge related deaths are nearly always the result of either poor evacuation planning(Katrina) or an outright refusal, by the victims, to evacuate(also Katrina, Ike, Sandy, el al). In the USA, at least, with proper planning and lead time that modern meteorology provides, there should not be storm surge related death.

    1. Jardinero,

      “Storm surge is not the leading cause of property damage.”

      The authors do not say that they are. They say: “Storm surges and associated waves are responsible for much of the tropical cyclone (TC)-related deaths and

      “Storm surge related deaths are nearly always the result of either poor evacuation planning(Katrina) or an outright refusal, by the victims, to evacuate”

      That does not seem accurate. A large fraction of the surge-related deaths are in poor nations, where people have little ability to evacuate to safety — especially in small island nations where safety from surges is difficult to find today. Evacuation of large dense urban areas, as NYC in Sandy, is not realistic. Most of the deaths from the water surge were elderly or of limited capacity. Moving them to safety — even in their own homes — takes more than “planning” — it takes resources on a scale that we devote more often to war aboard than disaster preparedness at home (which is the point of this post).

    2. I repeatedly qualified my statements with “in the USA”

      “… the tropical cyclone (TC)-related deaths and damage.” Damage usually refers to property damage. What other damage would this refer to and how do you quantify it?

      1. jardinero,

        (a) It was my misinterpretation — you didn’t mention USA in the first sentence, which is what I quoted.

        (b) They specifically refer only to tropical cyclone damage (i.e., “hurricanes” in the US), which is a relatively small subset of all storms. {Even Sandy was an “extra-tropical storm” at landfall, below hurricane strength}.

        We have not had a major hurricane (category 3 or higher) hit the US since Wilma on 24 October 2005.

    3. Globally, nearly 99 percent of all surge related deaths are in low lying areas of Bangladesh, Thailand and the Philippines. Again, evacuation planning is key. No metro areas, in the USA, require wholesale evacuation in the event of storm surge. You merely move persons from the lowest lying areas to higher elevations. In New York City you either go upstairs or uptown. Even in Houston, or New Orleans, you merely have to travel a few tens of miles to be out of harms way. I have been through it more than once, I know first hand.

      1. jardinero,

        Yes, that’s what I meant about the US.

        I am skeptical of the ability of poor nations like Bangledesh and Haiti to stage effective evacuations from major storms (to where?). But it’s not a subject about which I know anything.

        If you could point us to some expert work on the subject, that would be helpful.

    4. “I am skeptical of the ability of poor nations like Bangledesh and Haiti to stage effective evacuations from major storms (to where?).”

      It is not the poorest amongst nations (like Bengladesh or Haiti are), but at least Cuba has been very effective in its approach to protect and evacuate populations from hurricanes.

      “If you could point us to some expert work on the subject, that would be helpful.”





  3. Don’t forget to include meteor and asteroid impacts in the list of predictable and devastating events as well.

    1. Thornton,

      Yes, the posts in this series discuss those as well. There is, however, little we can do to prepare for strikes from space — yet. Bit I am confident that SpaceGuard lies in our future.


      Note that the Wikipedia entry inaccurately describes the SpaceGuard program of Arthur C Clarke’s “Rama” books. They don’t just detect dangerous space objects, but move them to safe orbits.

  4. Everybody is preoccupied by the climate change and global warming, but it is useless to discuss only the future whithout understanding the main cause of the climate transformation. My opinion is that the ocean and human activity on the ocean (mostly naval wars) has a big contribution in the matter. Aren’t we ignoring that? Shouldn’t we pay more attention to the ocean? I recommend everyone interested in this subject to take a look on http://www.whatisclimate.com/ and to understand the role of the ocean in climate change.

  5. So, once we have a better understanding of the risk, and therefore better actuarial abilities, then what?
    I presume the end-goal of this excercise would be to better allocate insurance premuims and infrastructure investments? Figure out which areas to protect with levees and flood barriers, and which should be abandoned as not being worth the cost?
    If that’s what we are proposing, then I’m all for an effort to maximize efficient use of our collective resources through cost/benefit analysis.
    Still, it’s hard to imagine a real-world situation where an increase in insurance premiums by itself would be enough to force locals to either make huge multi-year public investments, or just pack up and leave. Although it might happen if certain areas were simply deemed uninsurable and redlined.

    1. Todd,

      Insurance premiums are a powerful tool. Not sure why you believe otherwise.

      But the greatest mitigation benefit comes from government projects and regulations. The latter including permitting and zoning, and more rational subsidized insurance programs (such as flood insurance and rebuilding aid).

    2. If anyone has some examples of when a change in either apparent disaster risk or in DIC insurance rates had a significant effect on either habitation patterns or on zoning laws, I would be very interested to learn about it, and I think it would be very relevent to this discussion.
      The population drop in New Orleans after Katrina comes to mind, but I’m not sure about the extent of the causal relationship specifically with perception of *future* storm risk, as opposed to people leaving simply because their home was destroyed.

    3. Great examples! I was thinking on a larger scale, in terms of protecting, moving, or losing whole municipalities. You’re right though, incremental improvements to building resiliency could make a big difference.
      Local building codes or insurance underwriters could require things like adequate drainage on the first floor, no critical systems (like generators) located on the first floor, storm shutters.
      If that was done in a thoughtful way, according to risk as determined by accurate historical record, then this would be a very good thing.

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