500-Year Storm of Scientific Illiteracy

Workers grapple with post-hurricane wreckage, Providence, Rhode Island, 1938.

A new paper in Nature Climate Change suggests that:

1. Hurricane Irene was an especially bad tropical system, and that its power was due to “climate change”;

2. what were once called “100-year floods” may now occur every “three to 20 years”;

3. what once were called “500-year-floods” may now occur every “25 to 240 years.”

The peer-reviewed paper by MIT and Princeton scientists is discussed in a physorg.com article by Jennifer Chu. The article has so many layers of wrongheadedness that, if it weren’t so foul-tasting, it would make a beautiful puff pastry.

Some of those layers were created by Chu herself, and some by the scientists whose work she is reporting. Here are some of the layers.

1. Chu writes:

Last August, Hurricane Irene spun through the Caribbean and parts of the eastern United States, leaving widespread wreckage in its wake. The Category 3 storm whipped up water levels, generating storm surges that swept over seawalls and flooded seaside and inland communities. Many hurricane analysts suggested, based on the wide extent of flooding, that Irene was a “100-year event”: a storm that only comes around once in a century.

OK, (a) the mere idea that a Category 3 storm is unusual during hurricane season. No, it is not. Most years there is a Category 3 hurricane somewhere in the Atlantic basin, and they frequently ride up the Gulf Stream, as Irene did; (b) Irene was not a Category 3 storm when it made landfall, but, rather, barely a category 1; simply put, a Category 1 making landfall on the United States East Coast is not news; it’s not weird; it’s not evidence of climate change; it’s just part of life; using such a landfall to scare people is wrong; (c) Chu suggests that Irene’s flooding was the result of storm surges, when this was not the case; Irene flooded much of the Northeast with heavy rain; an abundance of tropical systems have produced far greater storm surge along the East Coast; the New England Hurricane of 1938, which wiped out most of the New England fishing fleet and sent an 18-foot storm surge into downtown Providence, comes to mind; (d) did Chu research other floods at all? there are plenty in the record that rival Irene for destructiveness, including this one, and again, if Chu is focused on storm surge, and I have to take her at her word that she is, the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635, the Great September Gale of 1815, the New England Hurricane of 1938, Hurricane Carol, and Hurricane Donna would all be worth considering; there have been literally dozens of storms the same intensity or greater than Irene; the claim that “climate change” spawned Irene is absurd on its face.

2. In terms of the 100-year-flood claim, once again, New England floods frequently, often seriously. It is a good idea for science journalists (and scientists themselves, by the way), to be wary of looking at the most recent weather event with over-large eyes. Rhode Island flooded much more seriously just a year prior; the argument can be made that Irene had a large rain shield, but evacuations caused by the tropical system were few and far between.

3. In terms of “500-year floods,” these began to be talked about in the media in the 1990s, especially during the 1997 Mississippi flood. In my book, I present a list of catastrophic Mississippi floods:

1718, 1735, 1770, 1782, 1785, 1791, 1796, 1799, 1809, 1811, 1813, 1815, 1816, 1823, 1824, 1828, 1844, 1849, 1850, 1851, 1858, 1859, 1892, 1893, 1907, 1908, 1912, 1913, 1916, 1920, 1922, 1923, 1927, 1929, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1945, 1950, 1957, 1958, 1965, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1979, 1983, 1984, 1993, 1997, 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2008.

There are likely floods that didn’t make it onto the list, particularly from the 18th century. Either way, mammoth floods were surely taking place before humanity was there to record them, and as I show in the book are nothing new. At all. What’s new about them is what an effective weapon they are in the AGW alarmists’ arsenal. The rhetorical weapon’s message is this: “You are wrong for burning fossil fuel, because its use causes floods. If you continue to do so you may drown, personally, or cause someone else to drown.”

Fortunately, this is hogwash. Don’t sell your coat. (Prefer it on Kindle? Here ya go.)

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About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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One Response to 500-Year Storm of Scientific Illiteracy

  1. I’d summarise what you’re saying into one phrase “global warming/climate change causes amnesia”. Add it to the list:
    http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/warmlist.htm

    I read some warmist drivel from a meteorologist in Maryland about Irene just a few days ago – he asked “what was a tropical storm doing this far north?”, followed up with the usual rubbish about AGW/CC causing stronger hurricanes. Either he has AGW amnesia, or he’s 5 years old. I knew instinctively this was nonsense. See
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atlantic_hurricane_tracks_1980-2005.jpg

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