CCD Editor’s Note: A climatologist and a climate expert weigh in on the so-called monster Hurricane Patricia and concomitant fear-mongering, and their assessment after all the headline-grabbing, clickbaiting hoopla finally died down. From The Province:
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We were told that Hurricane Patricia was the strongest event of its kind in history. A quick look at the record books reveals that this isn’t true.
Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are just different names for the same weather phenomenon — intense tropical cyclones, or TCs. The only difference between them is their locations. In the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific, we refer to them as hurricanes. In the Northwest Pacific they are called typhoons. In the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, people call them cyclones.
So how did Patricia compare with other severe TCs on record?
The most intense TC, as defined by how low the central pressure became, was Typhoon Tip in 1979 in the Northwest Pacific Ocean. Tip reached a low of 870 millibars while Patricia never dropped below 879 millibars.
The most intense TC, as defined by maximum sustained surface wind speed, was Typhoon Nancy in the Northwest Pacific Ocean in 1961. Nancy attained 344 km/h. Six TCs between 1959 and 1997 exceeded 304 km/h. According to The Weather Channel, Patricia’s maximum sustained wind speed at landfall was estimated at 264 km/h and an automated weather observation site in Cuixmala on the west coast of Mexico reported 296 km/h.
Patricia’s supposed 320 km/h wind speed over the ocean was not actually measured. It was merely predicted by computer models based on the measured speeds thousands of feet above the surface. The evidence that it was exaggerated is the rapidity with which the winds supposedly diminished after the storm reached land, where it could be measured.
Patricia did not even set a record for gusts. Cyclone Olivia gusted to 405 km/h at Barrow Island, Australia in 1996. Patricia gusted to 338 km/h.
Claims that Patricia set records for the most rapid intensification are also wrong. While the storm did strengthen quickly, supposedly dropping 100 millibars in only 24 hours, Typhoon Forrest in the North West Pacific in 1983 took less than a day to drop the same amount. Super Typhoon Irma in 1966 in the North West Pacific intensified even faster, taking only eight hours to drop 51 millibars.
At about 320 kilometres across, Patricia was only about half the diameter of Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005 and a quarter the diameter of Sandy, which crippled New York City. Tip holds the record, however, as it stretched 2,208 kilometres across, nearly half the size of the contiguous U.S.
Patricia had wind speeds in excess of 118 km/h, the level at which a TC is first labelled a hurricane, for about two days and was a Category 5 storm, the highest, for just one day. Hurricane/Typhoon John in the Pacific lasted 31 days in 1994 and five TCs in the western Pacific stayed at Category 5 for 3½ days or more.
Storm surges, an abnormal rise in ocean level generated by storms, are often the greatest threat from TCs. The 1876 Bakergunj cyclone in Bangladesh, holds the record at 13.4 metres. No TC storm surge has exceeded 10 metres in the 20th or 21st centuries.
Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that Patricia’s storm surge “could be catastrophic,” it was so small that the agency didn’t even discuss it afterwards.
Loss of life and property damage from TCs can be staggering. About 300,000 people perished due to The Great Bhola Cyclone in Bangladesh in 1970. The deadliest hurricane in the U.S. that hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900 killed more than 8,000 people. Over 6,000 Filipinos died due to Haiyan, and Katrina killed about 1,500. In contrast, Patricia killed zero to six people, depending on different reports.
The maximum damage (in 2005 US dollars) caused by a TC anywhere in the world was the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, which cost $157 billion. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 did $99.4 billion in damage. Katrina cost at least $81 billion.
By comparison, the catastrophe risk-modelling firm AIR Worldwide reported that “Insured losses to onshore properties in Mexico from Hurricane Patricia are unlikely to exceed $200 million.”
While it is important to help people prepare for extreme weather events, and, indeed, the Mexican government did a good job getting ready for Patricia, the idea that TCs are worsening is false. The thought that we control them is nonsense.
TCs have always happened and always will, no matter what we do.
Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa-based International Climate Science Coalition. Tim Ball is a former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg.