Report: Global Warming Did Not Devastate South Pacific Islands

Michael Bastasch | Contributor

The South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu was hit by a massive tropical cyclone on Friday, leaving dozens dead and even more in need of food and water to survive.

Almost immediately after the storm hit, Vanuatu’s president blamed global warming.

But was global warming to blame for the Cyclone Pam? The evidence says it’s not likely and climate scientists are hesitant to blame rising carbon dioxide levels for wreaking havoc on Vanuatu.

Cyclone Pam was not the worst storm on record in the South Pacific, but it was still devastating. The Atlantic reports the storm’s wind gusts reached 200 mph and it damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the buildings in Vanuatu’s capital.

President Baldwin Lonsdale, who was ironically at a disaster risk conference in Japan at the time, told reporters that “climate change is contributing to this.” Lonsdale’s concerns over global warming’s impact on cyclones were echoed by fellow Pacific Islanders.

“For leaders of low-lying island atolls, the hazards of global warming affect our people in different ways, and it is a catastrophe that impinges on our rights,” Anote Tong, president of the island nation of Kiribati, told reporters. “There will be a time when the waters will not recede.”

While South Pacific politicians have blamed global warming, scientists have not been so eager to global temperature rises for tropical cyclones.

Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote that while evidence points to increasing cyclone intensity where Pam formed, the “roughly thirty year period over which we have reliable reanalyses and satellite measurements [for tropical cyclones] is too short to rule out the influence of natural climate variability.”

Emanuel added, however, that while “Pam and Haiyan, as well as other recent tropical cyclone disasters, cannot be uniquely pinned on global warming, they have no doubt been influenced by natural and anthropogenic climate change and they do remind us of our continuing vulnerability to such storms.”

Unlike Emanuel, other scientists have been less willing to attribute Cyclone Pam to global warming, instead pointing out that sea level rises caused by global warming, not the cycles themselves, are causing more damage.

“There is no clear evidence that climate change affected the formation or intensity of Cyclone Pam,” Nick Klingaman, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, told the Science Media Centre.

“The latest projections from climate models suggest that climate change will reduce the total number of tropical cyclones in the South Pacific, although the average intensity of the cyclones that do form may be stronger than at present,” Klingaman added.

Klingaman’s comments were echoed by Peter Stott, a lead climate scientist at the U.K.’s Met Office. Stott said that sea level rise “is leading to large increases in the expected frequency of extremes of sea level from storm surges,” but added that the “impact of anthropogenic climate change on tropical cyclones themselves is more uncertain.”

Other scientists argue that global warming means warmer oceans, which means there is more moisture in the atmosphere, making tropical cyclones more intense. But even there, scientists say the link between global warming and cyclones is tenuous.

“On a personal level, I sympathise with the President’s evident frustration: he and the people of Vanuatu deserve an authoritative answer to the question of the role of past greenhouse gas emissions in Cyclone Pam,” Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford, told the Science Media Centre. “The science isn’t there yet, but we are getting there.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — often touted as the world authority on global warming science — itself found there were no “no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century” and no “robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin.”

While there is certainly scientific evidence that global warming could one day intensify tropical cyclones, the evidence just isn’t there yet. Until then, scientists can only say there is no link between cyclone intensity and global warming.

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