May 22, 1997 BOULDER--In the past eight years, three U.S. hurricanes--Andrew
(1992), Hugo (1989), and Opal (1995)--have wreaked a total of over
$40 billion in damage. However, according to a new study, this
number does not reflect any unusual increase in hurricane strength
or frequency. Instead, it indicates that more and more Americans
have put themselves and their property at risk by flocking to
vulnerable coastal locations. The population shift could spell
further trouble if hurricanes again make landfall as often as they
did in the 1940s or 1960s.
"Normalized Hurricane Damages in the United States: 1925-1995" was
presented by Roger Pielke (National Center for Atmospheric
Research, or NCAR, Boulder, Colorado) and Christopher Landsea
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Atlantic
Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, Miami, Florida) on
May 22 in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the 22nd Conference on
Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, sponsored by the American
Meteorological Society. NCAR is operated by the University
Corporation for Atmospheric Research under sponsorship of the
National Science Foundation.
Pielke and Landsea note that a variety of sources from the U.S.
Senate to Newsweek magazine have linked global warming to the past
decade's rise in hurricane damages. Yet most of the Atlantic
hurricane seasons since 1970 have seen tropical cyclones occurring
at a less frequent rate than the century-long average. Only in
1995 and 1996 (the two busiest consecutive seasons on record) did
the pace pick up significantly. Some climatologists now believe
that a natural multidecadal cycle will inevitably return to a
period of increased Atlantic hurricane activity similar to the
How might that affect today's society? Pielke and Landsea
examined landfalling U.S. hurricanes since 1925 and normalized
their effects to 1995 values, taking into account three factors:
(1) inflation; (2) a disproportionate increase over time in the
number of Americans living near the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts; and
(3) increase in material wealth held by the average household
(families own more possessions than ever before).
Through this analysis, Pielke and Landsea estimate that the 1926
Miami hurricane--which passed just north of Andrew's track across
south Florida, then struck the Mobile, Alabama/Pensacola, Florida
region--would inflict some $72 billion in damages if it struck
today. That storm was a category 4, one notch below the strongest
ranking on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the hurricane rating system
used by U.S. meteorologists.
The analysis also shows that seven hurricane seasons between 1940
and 1969 would have produced damages of more than $10 billion each
had they occurred in 1995, while only three seasons since 1970
would have done the same. (See graphs on back page.)
"The normalized data indicate clearly that the United States has
been fortunate in recent decades with regard to storm losses. The
data also refute recent claims that the rapid increase in
nonnormalized damages is due to climatic changes," says Pielke.
According to Landsea, "The normalized damages suggest that the
nation should expect about $5 billion in damages per year, and
substantially more than that if we are entering a regime of more
active hurricane conditions."
If the normalization methodology is any indication, Pielke adds,
"It is only a matter of time before the nation experiences a $50
billion or greater storm, with multibillion-dollar losses becoming
increasingly frequent. Climate fluctuations which return the
Atlantic basin to a period of more frequent storms will enhance
the chances that this time occurs sooner, rather than later."
Writer: Bob Henson
A draft of the referenced paper will be available on the Web after
May 22 at
Reporters are free to quote from this version of the paper.
This press release is available on the World Wide Web at
Although U.S. hurricane damage tolls have soared in recent years
(left), a new study puts these figures in perspective by adjusting
them for increases in coastal population and wealth during this
century. The normalized values (right) show that landfalling
hurricanes in 1926 would have produced over $74 billion of damage
if they struck today. Several other hurricane seasons in the
1940s, 1950s, and 1960s would have topped $10 billion in damage.
(Illustrations courtesy Roger Pielke, Jr., and Christopher
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