Why it seems like severe weather is becoming more common when the data shows otherwise

Anthony Watts Meteorologist and Climate Blogger
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On his blog, Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. writes:

A new analysis of floods around the world has been called to my attention. The new analysis is contrary to conventional wisdom but consistent with the scientific literature on global trends in peak streamflows. Is it possible that floods are not increasing or even in decline while most people have come to believe the opposite?

Bouziotas et al. presented a paper at the EGU a few weeks ago (PDF) and concluded:

“Analysis of trends and of aggregated time series on climatic (30-year) scale does not indicate consistent trends worldwide. Despite common perception, in general, the detected trends are more negative (less intense floods in most recent years) than positive. Similarly, Svensson et al. (2005) and Di Baldassarre et al. (2010) did not find systematical change neither in flood increasing or decreasing numbers nor change in flood magnitudes in their analysis.”

Note the phrase “despite common perception.” I was very pleased to see that in context with a conclusion from real data.

That “common perception” is central to the theme of “global climate disruption,” started by John P. Holdren in this presentation, which is one of the new buzzword phrases being used in the place of “global warming” and “climate change” to convey alarm.

Like Holdren, many people who ascribe to doomsday scenarios related to AGW seem to think that severe weather is happening more frequently. From a perception not steeped in the history of television technology, web technology, and mass media, which has been my domain of avocation and business, I can see how some people might think this. I’ve touched on this subject before, but it bears repeating again.

In recent years, the reach of communications technology has expanded and the speed with which natural disasters are reported has increased. With global news coverage, instant messaging, and Internet-enabled phones with cameras, is it any wonder that nothing related to severe weather or disaster escapes our notice anymore? This improved reporting makes it seem as if severe weather events and disasters are becoming much more frequent.

Using this Wikipedia timeline as a start, I created a timeline that tracks the earliest communications to the present, adding severe weather events of note and weather and news technology improvements for context. Here’s an excerpt of it (to see the full timeline, click here).

1450 – Johannes Gutenberg finishes a printing press with metal movable type.

1812 – The Aug. 19, 1812 New Orleans hurricane that didn’t appear in Washington, D.C.’s Daily National Intelligencer until September 22.

1876 – Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson exhibit an electric telephone in Boston.

1914 – Teletype introduced as a news tool. The Associated Press introduced the “telegraph typewriter” into newsrooms in 1914, making transmission of entire ready-to-read news stories available worldwide.

1946 – The DuMont Television Network, which had begun experimental broadcasts before the war, launched what Newsweek called “the country’s first permanent commercial television network” on August 15, 1946.

1963 – First geosynchronous communications satellite is launched.

1982 – The Weather Channel (TWC) is launched by John Coleman and Joe D’Aleo with 24-hour broadcasts of computerized weather forecasts and weather-related news.

1992 – Hurricane Andrew, spotted at sea with weather satellites, is given nearly continuous coverage on CNN and other network news outlets as it approaches Florida. Live TV news via satellite coverage as well as some Internet coverage is offered. It was the first Category 5 hurricane imaged on NEXRAD.

2011 – Notice of an earthquake off the coast of Japan was blogged near real-time thanks to a USGS email message alert before TV news media picked up the story, followed by a tsunami warning. A Japanese TV news helicopter with live feed was dispatched and showed the tsunami live as it approached the coast of Japan and hit the beaches. Carried by every major global news outlet and live-streamed on the Internet, it was the first time a tsunami of this magnitude was seen live on global television before it impacted land.

To borrow and modify a famous phrase from James Carville: It’s the technology, stupid.

Here’s the truth:

1. There have been relatively few tornadoes in the USA in recent years:

Source: National Climatic Data Center

2. Global tropical cyclone activity, as measured by frequency and ACE, is at the lowest level in 30 years, despite 2010 being claimed as the warmest year ever:

Global Tropical Cyclone ACE (Dr. Ryan N. Maue, FSU)

12-month running sums of hurricane frequency (Dr. Ryan N. Maue, FSU)

3. And there is no evidence that the frequency of flooding has increased in recent years:

Destructive floods observed in the last decade all over the world have led to record high material damage. The conventional belief is that the increasing cost of floods is associated with increasing human development on flood plains (Pielke & Downton, 2000). However, the question remains as to whether or not the frequency and/or magnitude of flooding is also increasing and, if so, whether it is in response to climate variability and change.

Several scenarios of future climate indicate a likelihood of increased intense precipitation and flood hazard. However, observations to date provide no conclusive and general proof as to how climate change affects flood behavior.

Finally, this parting note: While our world has seen the explosion of TV news networks, Internet news websites, personal cameras and recording technology, smartphones with cameras, and the ability to submit a photo or movie or live video feed virtually anywhere, anytime, giving us instant reporting of disasters, there’s one set of elusive phenomena that still hasn’t seen an increase in credible reporting and documentation: UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot.

We still haven’t seen anything credible from the millions of extra electronic eyes and ears out there, and people still marvel over old, grainy images. You’d think that if they were on the increase, we’d know about it.

Anthony Watts operates the most-visited blog on climate science in the world: Watts Up With That.