Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Northeast Australia Hit by Category 5 Cyclone

Green Car Congress relayed news yesterday that Northeastern Australia was hit by one of the most powerful cyclones in decades on Monday [hurricanes are called cyclones 'down undah' for all you American readers].

Cyclone Larry made landfall near Cairns, Queensland, with winds of up to 180 mph (290 km/hr). Larry reportedly flattened sugarcane fields and banana crops, ripped roofs off houses and uprooted trees in a 300km-wide swath (186 miles).

Hardest hit was the town of Innisfail, 60 miles (100 km) south of Cairns. About half the homes in Innisfail have been damaged, according to emergency services, and millions of dollars worth of sugar cane and banana crops have been destroyed, GCC reports.

The area is the heart of Australia’s banana industry and also accounts for 25% of Australia’s sugar cane production. The Austrlian Broadcasting Corporation reports that as much as 90% of the nation's banana crop was lost due to this single storm. Since many trees have been destroyed, it may be many years before the banana industry recovers. Cairns and the surrounding area is also a large tourist destination and departing point for visits to the Great Barrier Reef and Queensland's northern rainforests.

Amazingly, CNN reports that so far there have been no fatalities and that only 30 people suffered minor injuries due to the storm. However, the constant rain dumped in Larry's wake is raising concerns about disease outbreaks including dengue fever and hepatitis because many areas remain without power, running water or sewerage, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

[Image: Cyclone Larry after landfall]

The article continues:

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said Larry was similar in size to Cyclone Tracy, which killed 71 people and destroyed about 70 percent of the northern city of Darwin in 1974.

The Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre in Brisbane is already monitoring Cyclone Wati, currently at category two strength. The storm, still to the east of Cairns, appears to be taking a similar track to that of Larry.

Hurricane Season for the US does not officially begin for another two and one-half months, but Accuweather just forecast that the northeast US coast could be the target of a major hurricane, perhaps as early as this season.

The forecast suggests that in terms of number of storms, the 2006 hurricane season will be more active than normal, but less active than last summer’s historic storm season.

"The Northeast is staring down the barrel of a gun. The Northeast coast is long overdue for a powerful hurricane, and with the weather patterns and hydrology we’re seeing in the oceans, the likelihood of a major hurricane making landfall in the Northeast is not a question of if but when."
—Joe Bastardi, Chief Forecaster Hurricane Center research meteorologists have identified weather cycles that indicate which US coastal areas are most susceptible to landfalls.

"Determination of where we are in the cycle has enabled meteorologists to accurately predict hurricane activity in Florida in 2004 and along the Gulf Coast last year. There are indications that the Northeast will experience a hurricane larger and more powerful than anything that region has seen in a long time."
—Ken Reeves, Expert Senior Meteorologist and Director of Forecasting Operations

In a paper published last Friday online in Science, researchers [at] Georgia Tech applied a new methodology to the analysis of global hurricane data and concluded that the increasing trend in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes for the period 1970 to 2004 is directly linked to the trend in rising sea surface temperatures (SST).

"...other aspects of the tropical environment, while influencing shorter term variations in hurricane intensity, do not contribute substantially to the observed global trend."

A discussion of the results of this paper and supporting and dissenting views on the conclusion is available here on RealClimate.

Yet another piece of anecdotal evidence and another study indicating that global climate change - in this case its affect on sea surface temperatures - ought to give us cause for concern. Extreme weather related incidents are on the rise and global climate change is the most likely culprit. The insurance agencies are well aware of this fact because they've been paying attention to this:

As the chart illustrates, the United States averaged only about one major weather related disasters costing over $1 billion per year during the 1980s. During the past decade and a half, the number of major storms has jumped to 3-4 per year. Note that the chart does not include 2005's record hurricane season which is likely the worst disaster year on record. Weather related disasters include drought, hurricanes, tornadoes, wild fires and the like.

To me, it isn't surprising that sea surface temperature rises - linked to global climate change - are responsible for the increase in frequency of class 4 and 5 hurricanes/cyclones. That's just the simple physics of it. I guess it just takes a study to make the official case.


Deconvolution of the Factors Contributing to the Increase in Global Hurricane Intensity”; Carlos D. Hoyos, Paula A. Agudelo, Peter J. Webster, Judith A. Curry; Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1123560


bob said...

The use of data going back to only 1980 exaggerates the problem. You need to include data at least back to 1930. The trend will still be clear, but not over stated. by presenting only a 25 year view you actually diminish your case.

Heiko said...

If you look at the work of Roger Pielke you'll find that there's no trend once you account for inflation, economic growth and increased population in vulnerable areas (that addresses Bob's point, you plot economic damage, not storms etc. themselves - if you instead asked how much would the storms of past years have cost insurers today, if they had happened today, you'll see a completely different story).

It's remarkable how much the population of hurricane prone coast stretches in the US has increased, while Maine's coast has had virtually static population over the last fifty years.

I draw diametrically opposite conclusions from yours. I think the evidence so far is that global warming will largely mean, well, warmer temperatures, and not more "extremes" (as in ="more catastrophes").

How come that people are so keen on moving to Florida or Nevada? Supposedly the extreme temperatures of the desert and the hurricanes that come with high water temperatures are so terrible that people should hurry in their droves to North Dakota.

Instead it's the South, and particularly the hottest and most hurricane prone parts of the South, that's seen the biggest increases in population in the US.

Yes, I know that change in and of itself is a problem, particularly fast sea level changes.

I do think there's solid evidence that it'll get warmer, that there'll be more precipitation, more evaporation, slowly rising sea levels, more hurricanes (because of higher sea water temperatures), but possibly fewer mid latitude storms, and also smaller night/day, seasonal and pole/equator temperature differences.

What I don't think is that a few degrees warmer are that big a deal, or that the appropriate price for CO2 emissions should be much removed from 0.