TCS Daily

Those Imperfect Storms

By Sallie Baliunas - August 28, 2002 12:00 AM

In 1999 at Las Vegas' Mandalay, Felix Trinidad trounced Oscar De La Hoya before an inebriated and nattily attired sporting crowd in what was billed as The Fight of the Century. It was the last of many.

The first "Fight of the Century" in the 20th Century was Jim Jeffries' loss to the world's greatest heavyweight champion of all time, Jack Johnson, in 1910. Then there was The Fight of the Century in which Jack Dempsey defeated Jess Willard in 1919. Dempsey fought another against Georges Carpentier in 1921, notable also as the first million-dollar event in boxing history. Next came Luis Firpo in 1923 and two Dempsey fights against Gene Tunney in 1926 and 1927.

African-American Joe Louis beat Max Schmelling in 1938's Fight of the Century, which helped batter then-popular eugenics notions. Undefeated heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano tossed the perfect knockout punch to defeat Jersey Joe Wolcott in the Fight of the Century in 1952. Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier in three Fights of the Century, and George Foreman in another Fight of the Century.

In boxing, there is always a Fight of the Century. Hype is part of boxing's anticipatory and participatory excitement, and is entirely expected by its fans.

And then there are Storms of the Century.

Storms of the Century aren't jostled into being by mere inebriate or even sober subjectivity. A Storm of the Century must meet certain quantitative benchmarks. For example, it must be counted in inches of rain per hour, total inches of rainfall, or floodwater height or volume. But that modest factual basis doesn't keep subjective, unscientific judgment from cluttering the analysis of them.

The Storms of 2002

August rains swelled the Elbe River in Prague to a magnitude not likely seen since 1890; Dresden may have set a record for flood height since record keeping began there in the 16th century. Through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, it seems the 2002 flood qualifies from those results as the Storm of the Century, as does the Mississippi River flood of 1993 did in the United States.

This year China also experienced unusual and devastating summer rains in the northern province of Shaanxi, Gansu in the west and Guangxi in the south. Another Storm of the Century? Perhaps.

But some environmental administrators won't let it stop there. Using their ability to command the media's attention, they've taken the current stormy weather and the problems it causes to blame industrialized nations.

Predictably, the accusation came just ahead of the World Conference on Sustainable Development that began this week in Johannesburg. The argument goes that industrialized nations have raised the air's concentration of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, through fossil fuel burning. That increase, in turn, increased the average global surface temperature, and thereby spawned ever more storms and other weather anomalies.

Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Program demanded, "We must massively fight that, and it is above all an obligation of industrialized countries."

Environment Minister of Germany Juergen Tritt echoed, "Mankind shares a real co-responsibility."

Neither claim rests on scientific facts.

The History of Storms

One way to study possible changes in storms in a warm world is through global models of climate change. Supercomputer models of climate cannot yet accurately detail extreme storms, owing in part to the sharpness and hence small scope of storm fronts, which are unresolved in global-scale models. The latest U.N. report, Climate Change 2001, compares (p. 597) forecast rainfall trends from different models of an enhanced-greenhouse-gas climate, with inconsistent results. Those forecasts collectively say Northern Europe summer precipitation will remain unchanged, increase or decrease, should global warming proceed. In short, they are inconclusive.

Another way to study storm changes is through climate history. Climate information reaching back around one thousand years - well before the air's content of greenhouse gases from human activities increased - argues against increased storms in Europe and China in the currently warm climate.

Scientists have reconstructed past climate, in the absence of instrumental measurements, through proxies. Glaciers, coral, tree growth and pollen deposits respond to and contain information on changes in temperature or precipitation or both.

Such proxies indicate that in the Second Millennium, first China then Europe experienced their greatest warmth approximately one thousand years ago. But by the 14th Century, climate in both regions had deteriorated. A five-hundred-year cool period, labeled the Little Ice Age, ensued and abated by the mid-to-late 19th Century.

According to climatologist Hubert H. Lamb in his Climate History and the Modern World, Little Ice Age weather extremes in Northern and Western Europe were more severe compared to the warmer 20th Century. The worst storminess of the past 1,000 years along the Netherlands coast, for example, appeared in the 15th and 17th centuries. Coastal flooding in Denmark and Germany in the 13th Century killed between 100,000 and more than 300,000 people. The destructive storms of 1421, 1446 and 1570 were at least as deadly, with the 1570 storm responsible for 400,000 deaths. As for the 20th Century, European researchers reported no rising trend in storminess in northwest Europe as global temperatures increased.

In China in 1332 the worst flooding of the Second Millennium killed more than 7 million people along the great river valleys. According to Lamb, the accompanying devastation of the ecosystem may have contributed to the decimation of populations in China and Europe by the Black Death as rats scurried away from the destruction, carrying the region's endemic bubonic plague west and north. The Black Death arrived in Europe around 1348-50. China's population, wracked by civil war and Black Death, was cut nearly in half - from roughly 130 million - during the 14th Century.

In eastern China through the second half of the 20th Century, Chinese researchers report that the number of stations reporting higher-than-average rainfall decreased and then increased. That is, at the end of the 20th Century, the number of wetter stations is now similar to that in the mid-20th Century, hardly an indication of a meaningful human-made global warming impact.

Running From Cover

Climate models do not yet give accurate forecasts of extreme events. Alternatively, climate history indicates that storminess in Europe and China worsened in cold, not warm, periods of the last 1,000 years. Despite present global warmth terrible storms will continue to occur, as they have for millennia.

To predict, prepare for and recover from destructive storms requires economic resources. German and U.N. environmental administrators urge implementing the Kyoto Protocol, plus stronger measures, to reduce the air's greenhouse gas content in a scientifically mistaken notion to combat storms. The American Council for Capital Formation recently noted that Germany would lose approximately 5.2% GDP from its baseline forecast in 2010 under Kyoto's implementation. Germany's loss in economic growth will significantly impede its ability to cope with ever-present storms.

The Kyoto Protocol is a one-two punch of little science and misplaced resources for public policy. Implementing Kyoto could be the worst self-inflicted knockout not just in a century, but in a millennium.



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