Joe Bastardi / March 24, 2017

Is the Current Climate Cycle Thwarting Major U.S. Hurricane Hits?

There are those of us out there who are so heretical that not only do we question the cause of the current warm state of the globe, but our attitude is: So what. Perhaps a warmer climate is a better climate for life and prosperity. After all, the evidence is clear that warmer times were “climate optimums.”

There are those of us out there who are so heretical that not only do we question the cause of the current warm state of the globe, but our attitude is: So what. Perhaps a warmer climate is a better climate for life and prosperity. After all, the evidence is clear that warmer times were “climate optimums.”

And there are those of the highest pedigree who believe that, for overall life on the planet, more, not less, CO2 is ideal. One such person is Dr. William Happer, whose expertise is in nuclear physics. He has published over 200 papers and holds this position at Princeton, one in which I would venture to guess means that he can think and understand basic physics:

I often wonder how such an accomplished person — and there are many like him — is decried as ignorant and labeled a climate denier. The answer, of course, is that Dr. Happer and others like him are not. They are subject to vitriolic demonization that has nothing to do with science. But here I find myself taking it further, opining that perhaps warming is good, not bad, in some things as far as the idea that the weather will grow more extreme.

I think it may be the contrary. One reason is because of what I know about the 1930s-50s. I often wonder if I could measure up to the people who had to forecast those events. I hear talk of climate refugees. Well, Nomads, in essence, are climate refugees, and they have been around since biblical times. People have always migrated, if they could, to areas more suited to their lifestyle. In our own country, we had a great example of that in the Dust Bowl years, and even now people are moving to the South when they can. This has been ongoing for quite some time. In fact, in pre-civil war times, Newport, RI, was the summer home of people whose winter home was located in Charleston, SC. The common denominator has always been a desire for “better weather” and the prosperity to be able to move around, which of course comes with the freedom to excel at something if you are given the chance that profits you.

But my first suspicion is on a macro scale: the idea that if it warms where it’s cold, but not where it’s warm, it decreases the “need” for storms. Storms are a natural process in which nature is balancing out the imbalances inherent in the system, one of which is the idea it’s very cold near the poles and very warm near the equator. Given that equatorial increases in temperatures have been negligible — in fact, the warming between 20°N and 20°S has only been about 0.1 degrees Celsius in the last 35 years, while the polar regions (and mainly in winter) have been where the disproportionate amount of warming has occurred — it’s no wonder that, overall, there is no big ramp up of extreme weather.

In local areas, perhaps. Example: the warm western Atlantic, which I say is a foe early, friend later, for snow lovers, may in large sense be helping with bigger snowstorms. That was not really the case in 2015 as it was just so darn cold. While drier than normal, it snowed more due to high ratios, but in a large sense a natural clash zone is great for storms. But notice that cold has to be available to fight. My point is that when one looks globally, warming near the poles and little change in the tropics mean there may be reduced extremes. Extreme events are not a sign the warming has won, it’s a sign there is still a fight, even though that fight may be blunted by the changes in global temperatures, which is a good thing.

What about hurricanes? Since 2006, no majors on the Saffir Simpson scale have hit the U.S. As an aside, my power and impact scale disagrees with this statement, as Gustav, Ike and Sandy were borderline majors in my determination. No matter, it’s still way below what has been alluded to in almost hysterical terms. Keep in mind, we saw politicos use a run-of-the-mill and slow-to-develop Hermine in the middle of the hurricane season as an example of global warming, indicating a startling ignorance to hurricane history, the same ignorance on display with the shrill cries of “worse than ever” out of New England. Politicos were apparently unaware of the spectacular hits the East Coast used to take.

Let’s look at the period 1950-1960, when hurricanes were indeed blasting the U.S. coast from Florida and states north (this does not include the 1950 mega season).

Sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies, against the last 30 years, were slightly warmer than normal near the U.S. south Atlantic coast.

But it was cold in the north Atlantic and cold west of South America. The Arctic was cold too. The point is: Where is the best place for heat buildup and its subsequent release for the heart of the hurricane season? Near the U.S. coast. Now let’s look at the mean surface pressures.

We have higher than normal pressure over Canada, near normal over the Atlantic into the U.S . The alley of lower pressure is near where the water is warmer. But with higher pressure relative to the lower pressure surrounding the bulge north of low pressure, it means systems coming toward the U.S. run into higher pressures in the means. This means there is more convergence of air in the means as a storm approaches the coast. It’s not unlike what you see in Nor'easters. When the big high won’t get out of the way and the storm tries pushing north into it, the air flows more strongly into the storm. But neutral to high pressure in the means to the north and around storms means the storm can maintain intensity.

The hurricanes of the 1950s did not weaken dramatically coming to the coast as we have seen with many storms in the non-major era, the most recent example being Matthew, which never could get back to the strength it showed in the Caribbean. When pressures are lower to the north of a storm moving north, the convergence is not as strong, and the inflow into the storm is not as great. So what is needed is an environment, removed from the storm center of course but still having an influence, where pressures are higher. If it’s warmer to the north in the means, this environment is not there. The recent non-major era SST:

The SST is all warmer to the north (in the Arctic, it’s saying the temperature of the ice is warmer than it was, but that is still going to distort the pressure field).

Look at the mean surface pressures and remember, what is the use of a hurricane if the redistribution of heat from the tropics into the temperate regions is already taken care of?

There is nothing but low pressure across the north, and the crucial pattern of having the lowest pressures relative to normal in the tropics is not there! This means a hurricane coming toward land, in the means vs. the 1950s, is heading toward what has been much lower pressures. The result is that in the means, the convergence is less (remember, when you are talking about very small changes in the tropics, it is a big deal with tropical cyclones). We know that when they come out of the tropics they are in effect doing what their natural process makes them to do: releasing bubbles of heat into the temperate regions for redistribution. If that is being take care of, then what’s the need?

What can we conclude from this?

1) This hypothesis is something that should be researched by people whose job is to research all aspects of weather and climate. It is typical of what I do, because I want to know why, and so this is a proposal and challenge to those who should look at this. There are many ideas in the private sector that only see the light of day when we real-time test them in a forecast. However, the downside and why this may never be looked at by the climate community is that the conclusion may mean warming is a net benefit, as far as major hits go, to a nation that has thumbed its nose at what has happened and blames what has been nonexistent the last 10 years, major hurricane hits, on CO2. If CO2 is causing the warming, with an enhanced coastal population, so far the result has been a benefit.

2) This does not mean we cannot get situations where everything lines up, and the extreme event happens. It’s just that they have been less frequent and this may be the reason. We have very warm water next to our coasts and one big high going by to the north and a storm that looks like nothing. But within 36 hours, it can blow up into a major as it comes to land. Recognizing the pattern that can produce this it what is crucial. In the means, we can plainly see that lower pressure in the areas north of the tropics and over the U.S. has been correlated to the lack of majors on the Saffir Simpson scale. Even on my scale, it’s a very quiet time. Again, in the large sense, why do you need that redistribution of heat if it’s already being accomplished?

3) I suspect, and this is something I have spoken on in the past, there is a distortion of global wind and pressure patterns that is leading to the ACE Index not responding overall in the way that has been opined in the people pushing the idea it’s worse than ever. I also suspect they have no idea to go look at things like this, but over the past two winters I have been burned on the disconnect between the mid-levels and the low-levels, so I have really dug in deeper. It is a major forecast problem now in my opinion.

4) There is opinion out there suggesting warming would be a net benefit. While that is beyond the scope of this, I have listed a few examples. Like it or not, the last 10 years have not been extreme and this may be the reason — warming has caused a basic shift in the pressure patterns during hurricane seasons that do not favor the kind of major attacks we had in the 1930s, ‘40s and '50s. While the adjustment took place early this century, the majors developed, but keep in mind that Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Ivan all were off their peaks when they reached the U.S. Lili collapsed coming to the Louisiana coast in 2002.

In fact, every major hurricane, unlike let’s say Hazel (1954), Donna (1960), Carla (1961), Camille (1969) and Andrew (1992), weakened coming into land. The ones that did “blow up” were smaller, weaker storms like Humberto (2007). Charley did too, but again, it was a very small storm in overall size, a fist of fury. It seems like the bigger the storm is in size, the more it will weaken coming to the coast. Part of that is inflow from the land in the bigger storms, but the other part may simply be the large-scale distortion in pressure patterns. It at least deserves a look, in my opinion. An opened-minded person is not afraid that the answer may be that there is a net benefit in this aspect, not the opposite.

5) Our hurricane forecast this year, issued already, is this:

I am looking for a lower ACE total than last year, and likely a bit below normal. My initial numbers are 70-90, but over half of that ACE may be to the north of 25°N and to the west of 65°W. However, there is no impact map I can draw at this time, as this is an in-close season again. I cannot just single out any one area at this lead time.

The danger of an El Niño season, in spite of overall numbers, is well known, with some huge names showing up. Of major interest is the lack of tropical activity in the Southern Hemisphere, with ACE at less than 20% of normal at a time when activity is typically over 60% done. Years with an ACE under 200 in the Southern Hemisphere have averaged 77 in the western Atlantic, but some big years showed up, like 1995. However, if we just look at years when an El Niño came on, with a lack of activity, they were under 50!

Still, we have not seen water this warm in the preseason during the satellite era. Even last year, there were some cool pockets in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a warmer version of a cold AMO. In other words, when we look at the Atlantic, there is a more robust ring of cool (more appropriately less warm) as there was last year, but we correctly surmised there was no reason to use El Niño years as analogs (the El Niño we were in was collapsing and evolving into La Niña). This year, it’s the opposite, as there is probably one coming on. That being said, it matters not that the MDR may be way below normal; it is slow-moving storms in-close (using the very warm water) that can cause problems.

Bottom line: Even in a regime different from the 1950s, the challenge of development in-close, rather than storms you can see coming a week away, is the big concern. Overall, there is major change in SST and pressure patterns that are not favorable for the kind of climate hysteria that is being pushed on people in regards to hurricane. In fact, reality may be quite the opposite.

Joe Bastardi is chief forecaster at WeatherBELL Analytics, a meteorological consulting firm, and contributor to The Patriot Post on environmental issues.

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