A Top Climatologist Says Hurricanes Are Not A Warning Sign for Global Climate Change

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A Top Climatologist Says Hurricanes Are Not A Warning Sign for Global Climate Change
A Top Climatologist Says Hurricanes Are Not A Warning Sign for Global Climate Change

One of the leftists’ favorite tactics is to refer to climate change as “settled science.” What, an observer might ask, settled the question? “Well,” comes the response, “there is an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists.”

An Un-Settled Scientist

Dr. David Legates is a climate scientist, although climatologist is a more accurate term. He earned his Ph.D. in that field at the University of Delaware in 1988 and subsequently served on its faculty. In 2020, the Trump Administration placed him in charge of “observation and prediction” at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The consistently left-wing National Public Radio (NPR) expressed dismay at Dr. Legate’s appointment.

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“His appointment to NOAA comes as Americans face profound threats stoked by climate change, from the vast, deadly wildfires in the West to an unusually active hurricane season in the South and East.”

However, was the hurricane season in 2020 “unusually active?”

Was 2020 Unusual?

It depends on the definition of unusual. In 2020, six hurricanes made landfall in the United States. That made it a rough year, but it set no records. There were also six in 1985 and 2005. Nor did it indicate a trend. Two storms made landfall the following year, followed by three in 2022 and one in 2023.

In fairness, these figures do not tell the whole story. Some named hurricanes never make landfall, and many hit countries other than the U.S., notably Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, and the Bahamas. However, given the notoriously capricious nature of weather, it is as fair a standard as any. Making the world of weather understandable to non-climatologists requires some simplification.

No Storm is “Typical”

Complicating the picture is that a few storms made landfall in the U.S. twice. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew clipped across South Florida as a “category five.”1 It then crossed the Gulf of Mexico before hitting rural Point Chevreuil, Louisiana, as a “category three.” Hurricane Katrina in 2005 followed a similar path, except it was an inconvenient “category one” when it hit Florida but picked up strength over the Gulf waters, becoming a far more destructive “category three” before flooding densely populated New Orleans.

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As Louisiana can attest, a storm’s destructive power is not strictly based on wind speed. On the Gulf Coast, Andrew was far less destructive than Katrina. Although all hurricanes carry massive amounts of water, some are far “wetter” than others. Conceivably, a “wet” category two storm could do more damage than a faster-moving “dry” category four. Another variable is the place where the storm makes landfall. As Andrew and Katrina demonstrate, storms that blast sizeable coastal population centers will be more destructive than those that hit less populated areas.

Unique Reactions to Unique Storms

Other factors affect how humans react to hurricanes—or any other destructive natural event.

First, people tend to remember the storms that directly affected them. This author lived just north of Miami when Andrew hit and will never forget that night. On the other hand, the people of New Jersey are far more likely to reflect on 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, a category 12 storm that gummed up life in Greater New York City for several days. Indeed, Andrew is responsible for twenty-three deaths in the U.S., while Sandy’s U.S. toll was seventy-two.

Furthermore, human memory tends to be short. Today’s storm, especially if supplemented by a wide variety of dramatic photographs, always looks worse than the dim memory of one two decades ago, no matter how destructive the earlier storm may have been.

Climate Change Alarmists

Famously, the leftists who scream about the “global climate crisis” take advantage of these human frailties.

Part of the problem when comparing hurricanes is that no two storms are identical. Hysterical climate alarmists continuously proclaim that the “unprecedented” current storm proves the earth is fighting back against humanity. They have the luxury of only considering those aspects of the storm that make it appear especially ominous. On the other hand, scientists like Dr. Legates need to isolate and compare those few elements that are common to all storms.

In a recent interview, Dr. Legates told The Daily Signal that there are three ways that one could argue, from a scientific perspective, that hurricanes are getting worse. His plain language in describing them is refreshing.

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“We can say that the hurricanes that happen are becoming more intense. We can say that the hurricanes that are happening are actually becoming larger and more powerful overall. Or we can say that they’re making landfall more often than not. And after all, landfall is the worst-case scenario.”

No Way to Predict Which Years will be Active or Peaceful

Then, the scientist uses data covering the period since 1971, when weather satellites began to provide far more information about hurricane activity.

During those decades, there have been active years and comparatively placid ones.

“[Y]ou see lots of variability over the years, but you see no long-term trend either in tropical storms or hurricanes. So we can’t really say that over the last 50 years that there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of tropical storms or hurricanes or has there been a drastic decrease. It looks just like there’s lots of variability, which we call year to year. Some years we get hit and some years we don’t. And so there’s no change there.”

Indeed, the charts show that the worst years were 1972, 1986, 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2021. Actually, 2021 was slightly—but not significantly less active than 1972. The least active years—1977, 1983, 1991, 2000, and 2011—are sandwiched between more turbulent times.

Accurate Climate Studies Must Consider Long Periods

In the search for truth about climate, using the greatest available timespan is crucial.

Consider a hurricane study beginning with the decade starting in 2011. As it happens, 2011 was one of the quietest years over the last half-century, and 2021 was the second-worst. Therefore, such a study could “prove” a massive upswing in the number of tropical storms. However, similar research beginning with the turbulent year 1997 and ending with the relatively placid 2007 would show precisely the opposite “trend.”

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Such considerations are crucial because, unfortunately, the field of climatology includes many people with a foot in both the scientific world and that of the activist. For government bureaucrats, climate change is self-perpetuating. A compliant press amplifies dire predictions and ensures continuing funding. Thus, activists and bureaucrats promote the “research” that produces alarming conclusions.

“Stone the Messenger”

Fortunately for anyone seeking the truth, Dr. Legates does not play the game, insisting that the only accurate picture—or at least the most accurate available picture—is to look at the entire fifty-year period. That examination reveals no significant trend for better or worse. Neither government nor activists want to hear that message. Therefore, they must “stone the messenger.” They heap pseudo-intellectual ridicule, like that which NPR threw at David Legates in 2020. He denies one of the left’s favorite fantasies, and they will not forgive such heresy against their climate change religion.

Photo Credit:  © Mike Mareen  – stock.adobe.com


  1. NOAA divides hurricanes into five categories. Category 1 has wind speeds of 74-95 mph, category 2—96-110 mph, category 3—111-130 mph, category 4—131-155 mph and category 5 has wind speeds exceeding 156 mph.
  2. Hurricane Sandy was a category 3 storm when it hit Cuba, but it had lost much of its strength before it became the only modern hurricane that made landfall in New Jersey.

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