Accuracy in Media

Now that Florida and South Texas are on the road to recovery from their hurricanes, talk has turned to the role global warming played in producing these record-setting storms.

In particular, what is the Trump administration doing to prevent these storms and why isn’t it doing more? Those actually were the questions Don Lemon of CNN put to Bill Nye the Science Guy, a TV show host who often offers apocalyptic predictions of climate chaos.

Nye said the storms definitely were the result of global warming.

“Those of us who accept the science of climate change connect all of these with having more heat energy in the atmosphere. You guys, that’s what it is. The sea surface is warming faster than it’s ever been, so the storms are bigger than they’ve ever been.”

Then he said, “We in the engineering community would prefer us to accept the threat of climate change and build our infrastructure, our buildings, our electricity, electrical grid and our freshwater supplies to be more robust.”

When Lemon pointed out that a scientist at the University of Washington had said the storms did not relate to global warming, Nye said the scientist “might be right, but wouldn’t it be good if the infrastructure in Houston could handle that much rain?”

It sounds plausible enough. If global warming is going to become a bigger problem and these major hurricanes are going to become more frequent, perhaps Houston should consider the massive investments it would take to upgrade all this infrastructure Nye mentions.

But are they? Roy Spencer, a Ph.D. who studies climate science at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, said yes, it is rare for two Category 4 hurricanes to strike the United States. So rare, he said, that we were long overdue.

Spencer said in a blog post that 24 Category 4 or Category 5 hurricanes made landfall in the United States between 1851 and 2016. That means one struck about every seven years and that, according to his calculations, that meant we would get a summer with two Category 4 or 5 storms about once every 50 years. But this was the first time since 1851 when two such storms hit.

Spencer said to compare this to the 11-year period before this summer when no Category 4 or Category 5 hurricanes hit the United States. If we should get one every seven years and two in the same summer every 50, how long should it be between periods in which we go 11 years without a storm? Spencer said 560 years, according to his calculations, which were based on figures from a 2015 NASA study.

So, which is rarer – the two-major-hurricane summer, which is supposed to occur every 50 years, or the 11-year drought, which should occur once every 560?

“Maybe,” Spencer said, “global warming causes fewer landfalling major hurricanes.”

The Trump administration should keep that in mind if it decides to start “doing more to prevent these storms.”

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