Irene and the Wrath of History (update)

Since I hope that I may be reading some of those posts in a few years time, I better start by stating the obvious: Irene is the first hurricane of the 2011 season and may barely make it all the way to New York without being downgraded to a tropical storm. (The threshold is 75mph somewhere in the storm – which will be on the eastern side of a north-moving storm, over the sea and not in the city … and in fact it has now more-or-less been downgraded during the time it took to write this post. No hurricane force winds could be detected anywhere on land or near the shore.)

It is not the first. Although it is unusually weak, compared to those other five. The media frenzy is mostly a product of ignorance, as all the other Hurricanes have faded from living memory. There has only been a single Hurricane that reached New York in the 20th century, but there had been four in the 19th century.

CNN, meanwhile, has turned into the Comedy News Network – with reporters holding up twigs and small branches of trees, warning that those are dangerous projectiles and pointing at small puddles of water as evidence of flooding. Oh, give me a break.

Of course, people are looking for signs of climate change and catastrophic conditions in the future in this hurricane, unavoidably among them: Germany’s climate-ideologist-in-chief Mojib Latif. But a mere glance at the New York history of the 19th century (when climate was supposedly “normal”) proves just how silly those people have become these days, their academic titles notwithstanding.

What we do see time and again, most glaringly in the USA, is ignorance of history. I single out the USA, because it is capable of preparation but doesn’t. There is little point in blaming the ineffectual Somali government for the recurring famines – because it barely has the means to prevent it. The USA does.

Imagine Irene had been one of those 19th century hurricanes – a solid cat. 3, instead of barely cat. 1 storm. With storm surges of 20 feet, instead of 10 feet. Well, one thing is for sure, the media frenzy would not have been worse, because a day only has 24 hours for reporting. New York has already been reduced to evacuation as its primary action, as it has nothing to put against any storm surge, even of the weakest of Hurricanes.

On the other hand, the mandatory evacuations themselves are in many cases far over the top. Officials like Major Bloomberg don’t trust citizens to judge for themselves whether they are safe or not. Should one of those Cat.3 storms truly reach New York in a few years, a lot of people will refuse to evacuate, because of today’s overreaction. Because it’s not a matter of life and death, except for a few isolated places where people know themselves what is going to happen during such a storm.

I would be very surprised if there was any move in New York now, to spend a trifling amount of money – no more than a few billion dollars – to make sure the city can withstand any of the Hurricanes it has experienced so far without massive damage (estimated to be on the order of $50bn for a cat. 3 hurricane).

Basically, it’s another Katrina waiting to happen some time in the next couple of decades, because just as New Orleans, New York won’t dodge a major hurricane when it comes along.

But that seems to be the American mentality. When bad things happen, let them happen. Unless it is very regular, localized and extremely damaging, nobody prepares for anything. California earthquakes: yes. New Madrid type earthquakes: no. Florida Hurricanes: Yes. New York or New Orleans Hurricanes: No.

Tornado preparation – beyond warnings – is almost an anathema. Why have trailer parks not been banned in Tornado Alley? Why are there no building codes to deal with tornado damage? Reinforced concrete buildings have proven to resist anything including F5 tornadoes.

Periods of droughts and heat waves are nothing new. The 1930ies saw the dust bowl. The all-time temperature records of 25 out of 50 US states have been set in the 1930ies. Nobody is preparing for the recurrence of such a devastating period.

I’m not expecting anything out of the ordinary. Simply to have a look at the history books and see what nature holds in store. Forget about climate change, trust the history books. Those have stories to tell that are much worse than anything that Latif or Al Gore have been talking about.

I’ve once been in a small town on a river in Germany that had a big wall against the regular floods from the river. Behind it stood a pillar with marks of previous high-water marks. It was higher than the wall. The top-most marks being the oldest, going back all the way to the 14th century. Not even they are truly prepared for what history holds in store. Some of the worst recorded European storms date back to the 13th century – a time when the Netherlands weren’t known for reclaiming land from the sea … because that was when most of this land had not yet been flooded in the first place.

American history barely exists. Nobody knows what nature holds in store for the American people. But they don’t even prepare for what they already know what can happen, and even those events are these days being blamed on climate change.

So please do me a favor and take at least the history you have seriously. – And that’s true for all places of the world. There have been times in the 10th century and then a stretch of 130 years starting in 1007, when Baghdad regularly experienced freezing winters. So regular in fact, that at some point they simply stopped writing it down in the chronicles after a few decades, because cold temperatures and snow in winter had become perfectly unremarkable weather. At the same time, Europe – including Iceland and Greenland – experienced very mild weather. All of which reversed after over a century.

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6 thoughts on “Irene and the Wrath of History (update)

  1. The history I’ve been through regarding weather is worse than both the earthquake and Irene here in NoVA. But there are 46 dead so far and places that have destroyed parts: The Outer Banks, Delmarva, and New England. Even though it was a Tropical Storm when it hit New England, there was still a lot of disaster. On the east coast, 50 million people were out of power (at 7pm ET) and in the DC area, we’ve had people in three houses who were almost killed because they kept their generator too close (yeah, that was stupid).

    The only different thing I did to prep was bring my wind-up phone charger inside — it’s usually in the van — where I have wind-up flashlights/radios. I always have emergency food here since there’s always times in summer and winter when I can’t go out for a week or so. I didn’t need to use any of those since we just had moderate rain.

    • If I were to write this entry today, with the benefit of hindsight, it would start out quite differently.

      I must admit that I lost sight of the flooding due to rain to some extent and the unavoidable destruction that goes with that (in places where people don’t prepare due to the irregularity of such events). I also did not expect that so many people would be killed by trees falling on them. Isn’t it common knowledge in the USA, that you should stay away from trees and forests during a storm? It is common knowledge in parts of the world were storms are usually much less severe.

      But then again, the point of writing the entry was to counter the news-network-view-of-the-world, that emphasized the storm surge and the wind above all else, and beyond the point of credibility and put it into perspective. Maybe that’s how people stopped taking it serious – going so far as sleeping in tents during the storm (one of twenty people died when tree fell on them).

      It’s hard to tell where the carelessness came from. The reporting was over the top on some counts, but I certainly don’t remember anyone warning people to stay away from trees and to avoid all driving because of the threat of falling trees and limbs. But I might not remember, because the rest of the reporting was not credible – human memory and attention are fickle things that are easily derailed under such circumstances.

  2. A fair number of trees came down on houses or cars, too. There’s rain in the Washington Monument because of the cracks so it won’t open for a good while. The National Guard is delivering food and such to people in Vermont who are stuck because roads and bridges were swept away. One of the WashPost Sports columnists I like compared ESPN to the Weather Channel because they keep going over the same things.

    The local NBC station did tell people to stay away from trees and to stay home, but you don’t know how many actually agreed, even if they saw it. Here’s an article about how people frequently think the storm brings other things.

  3. You raise some interesting points regarding disaster preparedness, particularly in the United States, and the overreaction to those events in the media. I also agree that history has a lot to teach us about modern day weather anomalies, catastrophic events do occur from time to time, and in the process kill or displace vast numbers of people. However, merely focusing on “the big one” can lead down a path where less newsworthy shifts in regional climate are overlooked. I should know about the “big one” because I am from Joplin, Missouri, where recently an F5 tornado tore down nearly every building in its path across the city, including those built with reinforced concrete. While the destruction wrought from the tornado easily put it into the “100 year” category for such storms, or in other words the top 1%, the changing climate conditions in the region are just as sobering as the “freak” tornado itself. In a region where agriculture is the prevailing profession, the uncertainty brought by shifting climate patterns has caused some unfortunate externalities. The trend over the past 10 years have been longer, drier, warmer summers than the established mean, and warmer, wetter winters which have been treating us with nasty reoccurring ice storms instead of the more timid snowfalls we are accustomed to. While it is true, such events have occurred in the past, they are often lovingly referred to as “that storm in ’71 that left an inch of ice over everything”, now, after multiple consecutive years of such storms, they are almost considered the norm. On a positive note, there is plenty of firewood to go around since many of the trees in the area now resemble senior citizens, bent over and broken from the successive pounding they receive each winter. The problem is, with more uncertainty regarding precipitation and temperature, there are significant economic disruptions that were previously easier to control. It is clear that some trends have changed; now the question is, will they revert back to the way they were for the past 50 years or so, or have we started new trends that include more unpredictable weather events? Unfortunately only time will tell.

    I know it is arrogant and foolish to equate global climate change with strange weather patterns in one small swath of the United States, however, I spend far more time than I should reading the news, and it appears to me that such changes are occuring on a global scale. The monsoon in India, whose nourishing rains helped spawn one of the “cradles of civilization” has begun to act suspiciously. Droughts in the United States, Russia, and elsewhere are dampening (no pun intended) harvests and creating the tinder for wildfires that have burned large swaths of land over the past few years. Coming back to tornados, Europe is lucky in the sense that it lacks the prevailing conditions that give birth to the most tornados, but over the past decade, there has been (from what I can tell) a significant increase in the number of tornados in Europe. I was recently in Germany (is that where you are from?), and the news was buzzing about a tornado that had just occurred somewhere in the south, my German friend informed me that tornados were incredibly rare and she was mystified by it. Although I could cite more examples of rare weather events that are indicative of at least some degree of global climate change, the one I find most interesting and alarming is the loss of polar ice in the northern hemisphere. There has been a significant annual decrease in the amount of polar ice over the past few years, and while I am sure Russia is salivating over the prospect of finally having an arctic corridor for trade, the fact that ice levels which remained robust for so long have begun a rapid descent in only a few years serves as evidence that something is indeed shifting. Ocean temperatures are going up globally which will absolutely have some sort of externality on the ecosystems contained within them. Climate patterns shifting in isolated parts of the world in different eras are one thing, climate patterns shifting all over the world simultaneously is another, and something that I believe should be very carefully monitored and researched. If global human interaction with the environment is a significant factor, as much evidence does indeed point to, then its probably too late to stop it from occurring, we are too many, we will just have to adapt to survive, but it isn’t too late to prepare.

    I apologize if it appears I am giving you a lecture, I stumbled across one of your posts at the Economist today, and it is obvious that you are far more informed and articulate than most random voices on the internet and there is likely very little I can write that you haven’t already considered. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments and your blog posts, and plan on regularly checking your blog in the future for more of your analysis. Regardless of your full thoughts and feelings on climate change, I believe that the risks of not conducting the research into 1) whether or not it is indeed occurring and 2)determining the causes far outweigh the costs of 1)conducting the research and 2)taking steps to minimize potential damage. I only hope that people don’t become too caught up in the argument while the baby drowns in the bathtub.

    Cheers,
    Aaron Wynhausen

    • No worries, this sort of thing happens to me all the time. (I think it’s ok with you that I deleted the second part.) Also, you published your comment just when I was writing another post on a similar topic … no offense. I only read your comment after finishing and sending it off.

      As to your comment: Let’s start in the middle of it. Europe sees a lot of tornadoes, but of course not as many as the USA. Also Europe is not one country and as such you will often be hard pressed to hear about a tornado in the Netherlands, England or Poland, when you are in another country. Germany gets on the order of 10-20 per year and while I’m aware of an increase in reporting, I’m not aware of an increase in frequency or strength.

      Speaking of strength, well, we get them all – just not very often. There have historically been F4 and F5 tornadoes in Germany. Wikipedia has a “List of European Tornadoes” listing two F5 tornadoes at the end of the 18th century (the height of the little ice age) and at least one F4 at the end of the 20th century. And that’s for just a small part of Europe. We will see those again. If it is next year I would be as little surprised as if it was in 37 years from today. The questions are when and where, not if. (But of course you know what the newspapers would write.) Also, the weather in the 1930ies was just as extreme as this decade, if not worse. To this day, the all-time temperature records of 25 out of 50 US states date to this one decade. – Of course, the 1930ies are not remembered for the weather, but the economy, these days.

      But actually, this is not the point I was trying to make. The point is: Even if you assume that weather will be worse than it has been in the past, you should first of all be prepared what there has been in the past. You should identify if there are factors that would make things worse if it were to happen again. (Such as the large increase of population during the 200 years since the New Madrid Earthquake in the area it affected. Which is a similar problem to the floods in Pakistan I just wrote about.) Deforestation, agriculture, increased sealing of surfaces, deposition of sediments in riverbeds and many other factors can make floods much worse without any change in weather patterns whatsoever.

      Keeping those things in perspective takes a lot of the urgency out of the problem and allows you to make much more reasonable and level-headed decisions. That’s very much a problem of the Al-Goreian alarmism. There are many very good reasons to reduce the use of fossil fuels or encourage reforestation, for example. But the whole argument is basically reduced to the effects of CO2 emissions on climate change and a lot of that in turn is based on research-in-progress, which is necessarily uncertain. (If those things were certain, no research would be necessary. But of course it is.)

      In other words, the bad arguments have driven out the good ones.

      We are told to reduce fossil fuels not because a lot of people need them but currently only a few people use most of them – but to reduce CO2. We are told that reforestation on a global scale is a good thing not because of environmental consideration, prevention of desertification, flood or avalanche prevention or its influence on local climate (if you change climate locally on large parts of globe – you change global climate … such as by replacing forests by croplands over the last century) – instead the argument is often reduced to “we should have more forests to sequester CO2″.

      P.S.: I’m not trying to nitpick, but try to break your texts down into more paragraphs. It makes a world of a difference in readability and also helps in writing.

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