12 November 2013
Was Haiyan Caused By Climate Change? We Might Know In 30 Years.
Posted by Dan Satterfield
There are claims going around that Typhoon Haiyan was a result of climate change, and this is nothing short of ridiculous. There is some evidence that climate change will change the numbers (and intensity) of tropical cyclones, and some that the storms that do form will be stronger and wetter. That said, there is still a lot of uncertainty in those predictions. An excellent paper on this subject is from Dr. Kerry Emanuel at MIT, and a later paper is IMHO the definitive best science on it.
There is an excellent graphic (below) that shows the correct way to think about how the weather will change as the climate warms and it’s worth looking at carefully.
While this graphic is for temperature, you can use it for extreme weather events of many types. Flood events are expected to increase, and years with unusually low Arctic Sea ice are another. The best way to think about it is this: as years go by (and the planet gets warmer), we will see more extreme heat waves and fewer extreme cold waves. Cold waves will still happen though, and you can see that claiming a big snowstorm disproves climate change is just as silly as claiming a super typhoon is the result of one.
Look at that graph, and you will see that ALL weather events are being affected by climate change, but not any one event. If we see an increase in the most extreme type of tropical cyclones over the next 30-50 years, then perhaps you can say climate change is causing more of them.
We are already seeing this with temperatures by the way. The number of record highs is outpacing the number of record lows, just like the bell curve indicates. As the planet gets warmer, the increase in extremes on the right will become ever more pronounced (compared to the extremes on the left).
In some ways this is a better indication the planet is warming than trying to take the global temperature!
The main reason why Typhoon Haiyan was so destructive was simply because the population of the Philippians has grown dramatically an many people have been building their wooden houses on land which their ancestors would never have considered suitable due to expected storm surges. The same thing has happened also in Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam and many other islands in the area.
I lived in Southeast Asia for 9 years and my last period there was from 1999-2004. I stayed in the Indonesian archipelago and on islands in the Philippines far from the centers of tourism. While in Southeast Asia I mainly worked as a medic and assistant general surgeon and trauma surgeon, especially in conflict zones in mobile field hospitals. Now I’m a researcher at an Ivy League University in the U.S., conducting research in ecology and evolutionary biology and developing mathematical and simulation models on the effects of climate change on the transmission of infectious diseases in marine systems and among plant and animal species.
Climate change — especially rapid climate change, affects the level of biodiversity within ecological regions. We now have very good data from the last glacial maximum (ice age) from 50,000 years ago. It’s possible to track human movements –almost always due to ecosystem collapse since then.
The idea that the incredible increase in typhoons, tsunamis and various catastrophic events in island Southeast Asia, the extreme drop in temperature in Central Asia (e.g. Mongolia’s temperature during the winter has dropped to -50 F, killing a large percentage of its cattle and livestock that can’t withstand such low temperatures); the decline in levels of biodiversity in the Carpathian Basin, Siberia, the U.S. and many other regions of our interconnected planet, is simply preposterous.
It should be acknowledged immediately that Typhoon Haiyan or Hurricane Sandy that devastated greater New York City and coastal regions of New Jersey, almost never reach the mainland and instead, predominantly wreak their havoc at sea.
The dwellings people use for their families and if they are fortunate to be able to afford chickens and other animals for consumption and agricultural cultivation, has existed for hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years. There is little evidence of storms as ferocious as what we have witnessed.
Modelling climate change is challenging, especially because there are lots of nonlinear effects and including all of the pertinent variables is a major problem because the results can be difficult to interpret. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reach some reasonable tentative conclusions. There has been an exponential increase in catastrophic natural disasters and infectious disease outbreaks that seemed directly linked with changes in ecosystems due to anthropogenic causes (human) and fluctuations/oscillations that occur in short bursts in different time periods. The extensive body of research in paleoclimatology and paleoecology as well as past megafaunal collapses in different regions of the world demonstrates this vividly.
Few climatologists understand much about the organization of social life or changes in the different spatial ecosystem scales. They don’t tend to do field work. They tend not to know anything about ecology and evolutionary biology. The field of biogeocomplexity that has been funded by the American National Science Foundation for training of PhD students and Post-Doctoral Researchers are selected universities in the United States has become an incredible interdisciplinary approach to understanding the relations between climate change at all levels from microbes and organisms to biomes Also, it’s important ton consider that few researchers such as our blogger will openly admit the limits to satellite imagery for understanding climate-ecodynamics within given geographic areas over time.
(We should now understand from physics that small changes can have dramatic effects over time. We are now unfortunately, beginning to witness what this means during a period of rapid climate change.)
If you don’t think these changes in the way hurricanes, typhoons and tsunamis have deviated from their normal pathways, you shouldn’t consider yourself to have any expertise.
Lastly, there has been enormous criticism of the response of the Philippines government to Typhoon Haiyan. Few people understand how limited the ability of the government and aid agencies has been to reach the affected areas without the deployment of advanced helicopters, naval ships and their forces were. But we should all consider how the international community has behaved. We had advanced knowledge about Typhoon Haiyan’s movement to the affected regions, especially wind speeds and so should have had rapid response teams ready.
So I wouldn’t be so smug and condescending towards the Philippine government even though they could have reached out to the international community sooner. (Massive evacuation of the population would have been nearly impossible and the storm was so destructive that it ripped through concrete buildings. Consider the U.S. response to Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans? It was probably worse than what we have seen in the Philippines?
Why? Because we have far better warning systems and more emergency evacuation systems (including the ability to create decent temporary and mobile shelters rather than sending a massive amount of people into an indoor sporting facility with limited sanitation facilities, water and food) and the capabilities to deploy our massive military and array of natural disaster agencies and volunteers to gain more rapid and more comprehensive access to any affected areas. But we were appallingly slow and turf battles among various federal and state agencies as well as indifference to many of the most vulnerable residents (who just happened to be ethnic minorities and poor — including whites) predominated.
I don’t claim to have any definitive answers to the current increase in devastating natural disasters that have increasingly reached island Southeast Asia. But there are tantalizing clues to be investigated more thoroughly and can be done much better and comprehensively by teams of scholars within a few weeks of intensive study and more comprehensively within 5 months. If we want to really thorough, it will probably be necessary to collect data from a variety of sources that are frequently ignored (archival work and reading accounts in Tagalog, Indonesian, Spanish and Chinese in addition to English, French and Spanish). There are even clues in classical literature and songs and mythology. In 2012, Dr. Klaus Reicherter of Germany’s Aachen University, studied the geological evidence of the Ancient ‘Wave of Poseidon’ that occurred in 459 BC as described by Herodotus in his Histories (Urania, Book 8, 129) . In his address on April 19th 2012 at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America, Dr. Reicherter demonstrated that the description given by Herodotus 50 years after the event, was indeed a Tsunami. So, there are ways to track such events from a diversity of sources and incorporate them into sophisticated models.
I and my colleagues will definitely be developing models of what has been occurring in the Philippines and Indonesia in comparison with other regions of coastal mainland East Asia during the last 25 years in comparison with a longer temporal scale (500 years).
Perhaps they were abbreviating their thoughts and keystrokes.
I think they were saying to look at the recent extremes in weather and that’s where you see the hands of climate change.
Or, maybe if it smells like a dog and acts like a dog, it’s probably a dog.
the first figure, of the PDF changing, is highly inaccurate. It clearly suggests that our future climate will have a change in the 1st statistical moment, and no other moments (variance, skewness, kurtosis). This is fully incorrect regardless of spatial scale. For example Dr. Sam Shen wrote a paper with Dr. Easterling showing the moments don’t change coherently DOI 10.1007/s10584-011-0033-9 There are many other examples but I don’t have the time. The IMPORTANCE however, is that if the 1st stat. moment is the only thing that changes…then explicit examination of the extremes is unnecessary; which is untrue.
well “highly inaccurate” is too strong a term…but anyhow you get the point.