JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Vice President Mike Pence was asked during Wednesday night’s debate if he agreed with the scientific consensus that man-made climate change has made hurricanes wetter, slower and more damaging.
Pence sidestepped the question and offered this response:
“With regards to hurricanes, the National Oceanic Administration tells us that actually, as difficult as they are, there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago.”
The Trust Index verdict? “Be Careful” with this statement.
And here’s why: on its face, the vice president’s statement is accurate. According to analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there has been little change in the number of hurricanes we’ve seen recently compared to 100 years ago.
But, as Weather Authority meteorologist Rebecca Barry points out, that statement lacks key context – namely, the differences in how we tracked and measured storms back then compared to now.
“If you’re looking at hurricanes over 100 years, you have to apply the context that we didn’t have satellites before 1966,” Barry said. “So unless a hurricane ran into land or ran into a ship and the ship survived to tell about it, we didn’t actually know the hurricanes were out there.”
It’s worth mentioning that after adjusting estimates to account for hurricanes that either stayed at sea or were otherwise missed, NOAA’s analysis found we haven’t seen a “significant increase” in the number of hurricanes since the late 1800s.
“Our satellites have gotten better in the past five years, so we have more information about their intensity and if they are getting stronger or weaker,” Barry said. “We have better information now, but it’s not necessarily saying there are more hurricanes now.”
Further, Pence’s response misses the point of the question, which is the widely accepted change in hurricanes' severity — not frequency. As NOAA notes, it’s likely the effects of climate change “will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes.”
The National Climate Assessment takes things a step further. Among other things, it found the “intensity, frequency and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 & 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s.” Though it’s unclear how much of this is due to man-made factors, “storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.”