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POV: Is Philippines Typhoon the New Normal?

Too soon to blame climate change, but…

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Typhoon Haiyan, which slammed into the Philippines in early November, killed nearly 5,000 and left a wide swath of ruin, homelessness, and human despair. Haiyan was perhaps the most powerful storm on modern record, rivaled or exceeded only by 1969’s Hurricane Camille along the US Gulf Coast.

While the initial estimates of the Haiyan death toll of 10,000 have been revised downward, images instantaneously transmitted around the world of bodies in trees, burial trenches packed with lime-sprinkled body bags (some heartbreakingly small), and families picking through rubble for the most basic needs of sustenance cannot fail to catch the attention of the world.

Perhaps the images and stories may even distract some of us from the latest episodes of American Idol and The Walking Dead, when it is the real dead with whom we should be concerned. And let us not forget that the United States is not immune from such events as Haiyan. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 killed between 1,500 and 3,500 persons, mostly in Louisiana. Katrina’s final death tally is still debated.

Being innately curious beings, we humans like to find the cause for just about any event, and in particular, we assign fault as we seek explanation for crises, be they epic natural disasters or human-induced events from a single-vehicle car crash to a world war. And thus we natural scientists are commonly asked, “Was (insert name of most recent big storm here) caused by global warming?”

As Professor Kerry Emanuel of MIT, who is perhaps the world’s top expert on such matters, frequently points out, the short answer is that we cannot uniquely pin single events to global warming. The phrase “correlation does not imply causation” is appropriate. Indeed, Emanuel, writing in Foreign Policy magazine after last year’s Superstorm Sandy (which was almost exactly one year before Haiyan’s Philippines landfall), notes that “attributing Sandy or any other single event to long-term climate trends is rather like blaming El Niño for a car accident on the Santa Monica Freeway.”

Keeping that caution in mind, however, a consensus view is developing that both the frequency and the intensity of storms are likely to increase in the coming years, in essence due to the increasing energy of the combined ocean-atmosphere system in our globally warmed future. For example, a warmer surface ocean is likely to fuel more severe hurricanes and typhoons. Rising sea levels, subsidence of coastal areas due to groundwater extraction, and other corollary processes will make a bad situation even worse. My opinion, which I desperately hope proves wrong, is that we are seeing the “New Normal” in all its power and destructive fury.

There is reasoned and informed discussion by scientists and public policy experts on what, if anything, can or should be done. For reasons relating to how long globe-warming CO2 is retained in the atmosphere, were humanity to cease emitting all CO2 tomorrow, the effects would still be felt for upwards of 100-plus years. Of course, CO2 emissions most certainly will not stop tomorrow. Thus, in addition to continuing to research and refine our understanding of climate change, we must also make real and lasting decisions about adaptation, mitigation, and coexistence with our new Mother Earth.

Writing in the Boston Globe earlier this year, Daniel P. Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, and I argue for “managed retreat” and “constructive resilience” as pathways that may yield some success as we wrestle with our future. For example, the city of Boston is proposing new zoning rules for construction. Such proactiveness is to be applauded. “Managed retreat,” whereby coastal communities make hard decisions about which areas to protect and which to let be “reclaimed” by the sea over a decadal or generational timescale, should be candidly considered. Such strategies can be global in nature and not restricted to the wealthier nations. Consider Bangladesh, with its population of 150 million people, at least one quarter of whom live at an elevation of four feet or less. A 1991 cyclone there killed 136,000.

How much more suffering on this scale can humanity bear without acting?

Richard Murray is a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment and a Scituate, Mass., selectman. He can be reached at rickm@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

5 Comments

5 Comments on POV: Is Philippines Typhoon the New Normal?

  • Kitty on 12.03.2013 at 12:50 pm

    This article, while more balanced than many I have seen in BU today recently, does not consider significant evidence that these massive weather events are no more extreme or related to man’s activities than those that have occurred during long term weather cycles of warming and cooling — of the oceans in particular — over the entire period in which human beings have made records of weather, whether mundane or catastrophic. Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan were particularly catastrophic because of the routes they took and the heavily populated areas they affected. Advances in forecasting and global communications not only warn us of impending storms but transmit pictures of their devastation around the world.

    Equally strong were Hurricanes Carla, Donna, and Camille on the Gulf of Mexico in the 60s, the Great Hurricane along the US east coast in the 1930s, and the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas 100 years ago. Photographs of the aftermath of the Galveston storm bear a shocking resemblance to those taken a hundred years latter in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the State of Florida and New Orleans in the early 2000s.

    The arctic ice caps have in fact grown not only in the past 10 years but statistically significantly from 2012 to 2013. Climatologists and other scientists know and communicate this. Like the coming of the Ice Age and it’s end, cyclical global warming and cooling is a matter of record in the life of our planet and there is no basis in climatological fact for the argument that the planet has entered a terminal warming trajectory caused by man.

    Of course, humankind has damaged the earth and micro environments by deforestation, by heavy and unregulated industrial development in some (particularly socialist and third world) countries, and by the growing development of high-density urban populations. There is no denying that. And there is no denying that extreme weather will CONTINUE to make regular visitations upon us, as it has in the past, before moderating in the historic cycle of warming and cooling over decades, centuries, and eons.

    What we can do to protect and preserve our natural resources makes serious sense in and of itself. This article makes that point eloquently.

    It’s still regarded as politically incorrect– even politically dangerous — to argue against the man-made catastrophic global warming manifesto, but a growing number of learned, reasonable, and observant persons are increasingly willing to do so and to document the cycles of global climate fluctuation.

    • Overlord of the Underclassmen on 12.03.2013 at 8:04 pm

      This is far and away the most educated and informed comment I’ve ever read on BU Today. I like this…let’s keep it up.

      • smoke and mirrors on 12.05.2013 at 10:14 am

        Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

    • smoke and mirrors on 12.05.2013 at 10:10 am

      typical data cherry-picking and disinformation from a climate change denier.

      “does not consider significant evidence that these massive weather events are no more extreme or related to man’s activities than those that have occurred during long term weather cycles of warming and cooling — of the oceans in particular — over the entire period in which human beings have made records of weather, whether mundane or catastrophic. ”

      this researcher/prof is not trying to state a scientific fact linking this storm to climate change. he was asked to comment on whether or not these storms are a product of climate change and is responding. he states flat out that there is “growing evidence” (not conclusive). and there is growing evidence. also, it should be said that extreme weather includes drought. a collection of assorted facts with references:

      http://www.skepticalscience.com/extreme-weather-global-warming-intermediate.htm

      “The arctic ice caps have in fact grown not only in the past 10 years but statistically significantly from 2012 to 2013. Climatologists and other scientists know and communicate this. Like the coming of the Ice Age and it’s end, cyclical global warming and cooling is a matter of record in the life of our planet and there is no basis in climatological fact for the argument that the planet has entered a terminal warming trajectory caused by man.”

      perfect example of extreme cherry-picking of data. weather and ice melt/growth fluctuates year-to-year. but overall trend in climate (and effects such as arctic ice melt) cannot be seen or meaningfully compared year-to-year. the patterns can only be measured and seen over a large span of time.

      so to your comment quoted above–that ice caps have “grown over the past 10 years” is 100% false. you are correct that last year they grew (up 60% from the year before is the actual figure), but that means nothing because the trend over the past many decades has been a steady decline.

      on arctic ice, see this page of ongoing, up-to-date data from the National Snow & Ice Data Center: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

      pay particular attention to this graph clearly showing the steady decline: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/files/2013/12/Figure31.png

      and finally: “It’s still regarded as politically incorrect– even politically dangerous — to argue against the man-made catastrophic global warming manifesto, but a growing number of learned, reasonable, and observant persons are increasingly willing to do so and to document the cycles of global climate fluctuation.”

      the overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that human caused climate change is real and happening, and the overwhelming majority of peer reviewed, published scientific research backs it up.

  • Thank You Kitty on 12.04.2013 at 8:02 pm

    Could we have Kitty write all the time, please? Intelligence and clarity both. Prof. Murray’s prose is pretty dead on the page, full of gov-speak, gobbledygook, and pre-fab phrasing that goes “blah, blah, blah.” How to turn something concrete and heartbreaking into something abstract and clichéd and dead on the page (“real and lasting decisions”). Prof. Murray wants to be a problem-solver–and do we ever need problem solvers–but this type of appeal will never get through to anyone except a narrow coterie of experts and policy wonks. (And don’t they wish for something a little more alive on the page?)

    I realize that these are harsh judgments, but too many academics cannot seem to learn that one can have the most important message, as Prof. Murray seems to have, but unless that message can be brought to life . . .

    By the way, the teaser is disingenuous. “Too soon to blame climate change, but . . .”. But we’re really going to do it anyway.

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