For 2018, Predicting Extreme Weather Disasters Not As Hard As You Think

January 16, 2018

TipSheet: For 2018, Predicting Extreme Weather Disasters Not As Hard As You Think

This special TipSheet is one in a series of reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the next year. Stay tuned for more in coming weeks and for the full “2018 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report in late January.

Will news year 2018 be as disastrous on the environmental front as 2017? It’s probably more likely than you imagine. Environmental journalists would do well to be prepared.

Floods, hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves and various human-caused disasters made 2017 a hard year to beat. Extreme weather events in 2017 caused a record $306 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other experts.

The hurricane damage alone was some $265 billion, and the wildfire damage nationally at least $18 billion nationwide.

One reason to expect more of the same is that many of the events were at least partly caused by climate change — which is expected to continue, despite the Trump administration’s effort to deny it.

The connection between extreme weather and climate change has been understood for some years. But what has changed in 2017 (and over perhaps the past five years) is the precision and level of confidence with which scientists can “attribute” some individual extreme weather events to climate change.

This is a complex discussion of the sort not favored by cable news. But it is based on quantitative estimates of probabilities.

Recent hurricane extremes were no accident

Of course, there is still some randomness in the occurence of disasters.

Before 2017, for instance, there had been an unusual “drought” of landfalling Atlantic hurricanes, lasting a decade. That’s the good news.

Hurricane "droughts" only encourage people to build more homes and businesses in the areas vulnerable to hurricane winds and floods. Above, flooding in Houston in the aftermath of Harvey, Aug. 29, 2017. Photo: World Meteorological Organization/Tom Fitzpatrick, FUGRO

The bad news is that such droughts only encourage people to build more homes and businesses in the areas vulnerable to hurricane winds and floods — ensuring greater damage when the next storm does roar in.

But the one-two-three punch of Hurricanes Harvey (in the Houston area), Irma (over much of Florida) and Maria (devastating Puerto Rico and other islands) was no mere accident.

Hurricanes get their energy and rains from ultra-warm surface waters in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Many scientists agree that warmer ocean waters from climate change have increased the strength of hurricanes, although there is less agreement on whether climate change increases hurricane frequency.

We have seen hurricanes before. But none like Harvey, which dumped a record three feet or more of rain on the Houston area. In low-lying coastal areas like those that abound in Florida (think Mar-a-Lago), climate-related sea-level rise only makes the storm damage worse.

Development worsens hurricane damage

One thing making the damage and casualty numbers historically high is development. For a variety of reasons, people build, rebuild and expand housing and buildings in coastal zones and inland floodplains. Almost everybody likes a beach house when the sun is shining.

Building in vulnerable areas has surged in recent decades. In some areas (we’re talking to you, Houston), ideological or cultural resistance to zoning (along with simple human denial) makes it difficult to control development in flood-prone areas. Once areas are developed, they are harder to evacuate when the emergency is life-threatening.

These are all issues journalists can explore before the hurricane season starts.

If you expect to be covering hurricanes in 2018, you will probably want to take note of the annual hurricane forecasts. These are usually issued well before the Atlantic “season” starts on June 1.

One forecast comes from NOAA/National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. (The best contact may be the NOAA press office.) The same office at NOAA also tracks the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which has a strong bearing on hurricanes, drought and other weather events. Another hurricane season forecast comes from Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project.

Flooding has many causes

Climate change probably caused the freak rains that made Harvey flooding worse. Hurricanes are hardly the only extreme weather events tied to climate. Floods kill a lot of people and damage a lot of homes.

There are many causes of floods — hurricanes being only one.


Congress must struggle with a dilemma:

Raise [flood insurance] premiums and make people unhappy,

or subsidize insurance and keep taking a loss.  


Often floods are seasonal and to some extent foreseeable or predictable, which, once again, is why people should avoid building in the floodplain. Land-use changes, such as paving that promotes faster runoff, are an ingredient. Stormwater management projects and policies are another. And the management of dams and reservoirs, especially those designed for flood control, matters a lot in many places.

Also, climate change has affected flooding, sometimes increasing its volume and frequency, and sometimes changing timing.

Efforts to improve flood insurance, which is to a great extent a federal program, will surely be a news story in 2018.

Congress tried during 2017 to “reform” the National Flood Insurance Program. Under the NFIP, the federal Treasury backs insurance issued by private companies, which would not issue it otherwise. The condition is that, to be eligible, communities must have programs to keep development out of floodplains. But paradoxically, low premiums tend to keep people in floodplains. The federal Treasury is losing money on the deal and the NFIP is in debt.

Congress must struggle with a dilemma: Raise premiums and make people unhappy, or subsidize insurance and keep taking a loss. Congress has been kicking the can down the road with stopgap “continuing resolutions,” including the one that expires Jan. 19, 2018. Stay tuned.

Wildfires an all-season phenomenon

Another kind of disaster we likely will see a lot more of in 2018 is wildfire. The 2017 wildfire season was enormously destructive — off the charts — and much of its increased destructiveness is attributable to climate change.

Wildfires in the United States have gotten so much worse in recent years that the whole traditional notion of a wildfire “season” is pretty much out the window.

California’s Thomas fire was still burning in late December 2017 and it set records for size. Other records were set in various parts of the West — not only for size but for cost and for death and destruction. Wildfires destroyed more than 10,000 structures and killed at least 43 people in 2017 in California alone. Post-fire mudslides — the effect of rain on fire-damaged landscapes — had killed at least 17 more in January 2018.

Wildfires are to some extent a natural regenerative process for forests, shrublands and grasslands. But they can become catastrophic when people build homes and businesses into the urban-wildland interface. Letting them burn may be the best policy in the middle of wilderness. But when homes and lives are at stake, agencies feel the imperative to put them out.

Wildfires like those in California are not really “natural disasters.” They are manmade not only because of climate change and human development, but also because of other land management, water management and fire management decisions. Not to mention building construction and evacuation planning. Much less arson.

Some hints for 2018. Drought matters, so check the U.S. Drought Monitor. The National Interagency Fire Center issues predictive outlooks (even in January), so keep an eye on them. Touch base with your state forestry and wildfire-fighting agencies.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 3. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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