Hurricane

Fact check: Craig Kelly and “shocking climate lies” about hurricanes

Claim

Craig Kelly has said that the idea that hurricanes are increasing in severity is a “shocking climate lie”.

Verdict

This statement is unjustified. Modelling and data show that hurricanes and other large storms are increasing in severity. The claim is taken from an unreliable source using incomplete data.


Assessment

The claim in detail

On 9th October Craig Kelly posted a video by Tony Heller claiming that the moderator in the recent vice-presidential debate presented climate misinformation about hurricanes and wildfires.

Craig Kelly’s comment was: “More shocking climate lies during the Vice-Presidential debate. No wonder so many people are brainwashed by the scare campaign.”

I will analyse hurricanes in this fact check, and will look at wildfires later.

The Tony Heller video presented information from the US National Hurricane Centre on the death toll of Atlantic Ocean hurricanes 1492 to 1996, and claimed this showed that there were more hurricanes and a higher death toll a century ago than is occurring now.

Misinformation

These claims by Tony Heller and Craig Kelly are misleading for a whole range of reasons.

US centric

Climate change is a global phenomenon. This information relates only to the US or nearby. It is insufficient to draw a global conclusion.

Global models show hurricanes are increasing in intensity.

But let’s look at the US data, because it is the most complete dataset available.

It’s just stories and isolated facts

Tony’s information is based on a few lists of events and some isolated statistics. He didn’t show any graph or trend line. There wasn’t any statistical analysis, there was no model. He didn’t do nearly enough analysis to draw a safe conclusion.

When the complete record is examined, a different picture emerges. For example, here are the number of deaths per century from the same National Hurricane Center.

 Atlantic tropical cyclones deaths (National Hurricane Center)

It is true that 1780-1789 had the highest number of deaths in one decade, but overall the number of deaths is increasing.

His dataset was incomplete

The dataset Tony Heller used ended in 1996. Since then, a number of severe hurricanes have occurred.

  • In the remaining 3 years of last century, hurricane Mitch killed an estimate 11,000 people, thus increasing the toll for the twentieth century to over 80,000.
  • The first 20 years of this century have seen hurricanes Ivan, Katrina, Sandy, Maria, Harvey, Michael and Dorian, with an estimated total of 5,300 deaths.

These additional figures don’t change the broad conclusion, but they do show that Tony hasn’t used all the data available.

Deaths are not a good indicator of storm intensity

The scientific claim is that climate change will result in more intense storms, including hurricanes. Death toll is not a good indicator of storm intensity because other factors are important:

  • population density (will tend to increase over time);
  • the path of the hurricane – whether it passes over major cities, or not (more or less random);
  • the quality of building and infrastructure (which will tend to be much better these days, and so reduce the death toll); and
  • the quality of warnings and the preparedness of those in the hurricane’s path; will be very much better these days and so reduce the death toll significantly – e.g. many more deaths used to occur at sea than now occur.
Frequency of hurricanes is not a good indicator either

Tony Heller mentions the frequency of hurricanes, but this is not a climate change prediction. It is unclear whether the frequency of hurricanes will increase or decrease as the world warms.

Climate science predicts greater severity of hurricanes, which will mean more frequent high intensity storms, but not necessarily more hurricanes overall.

Climate science predictions

Wind speed, pressure, precipitation and speed of intensification are the best indicators of hurricane intensity. For example, a hurricane is defined as a low pressure system with wind speeds greater than 74 mph (119 kph), while a major (category 3 or above) storm has wind speeds of greater than 178 kph.

Most of these indicators require good measurements and modelling, and so cannot be estimated for historic hurricanes.

A recent study examined worldwide tropical cyclones over the 39-year period 1979–2017, and found that there was a clear increasing trend in the probability of major tropical cyclones, of about 8% per decade.

Other studies indicate that, globally, hurricanes are increasing in intensity, intensifying more rapidly, and producing more rain.

Summary

It is clear then that Tony’s (and Craig’s) statements are not based on good science.

  • Tony used incomplete and less relevant data (on deaths), and didn’t do any statistical analysis.
  • Even the complete death data shows a significant increase in the twentieth century.
  • The more relevant and accurate data on intensity shows clear increases over the past 40 years.
  • The models based on the best data show continuing increases in storm intensity.

Tony has accused “a few worthless scientists …. who’ll say anything for attention and money” of helping create “mindless climate superstition”.

This is totally wrong, unjustified and opposite to the truth.

In reality, his view is in the minority among climate scientists because, as we’ve seen here, the science is clear. Global warming is causing weather and climate changes that are harmful.

Unfortunately, Craig Kelly has chosen (again) to believe misinformation from a minority view and ignore the vast majority of scientists following the credible data.

Further reading

Photo: Pexels

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