Credit: Illustration by Slug Signorino

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Whenever there’s a really bad storm, environmentalists on the left and apocalypse enthusiasts on the right act as though it’s self-evident that hurricanes and other storms are becoming more frequent and intense. Environmentalists cite global warming, while apocalypse enthusiasts blame sinners for incurring God’s wrath. But I never see any statistics showing the hurricane situation is actually, quantifiably getting worse. Are there more (and worse) hurricanes than in the past? —Geoffrey Card

Let me declare my bias, Geoff. Do I personally think the wacky weather lately is a sign of climate change? Hell yes. Do we have ironclad scientific proof that hurricanes, the most spectacular weather disaster, are getting worse? No, we don’t.

At first glance hurricane frequency seems to be on the upswing. The trend from 1878 to 2008 shows the average annual total of hurricanes increasing from seven to 12. Aha, you say, proof of global warming! But closer analysis suggests the rise can mostly be explained by improved weather observation: In the old days storms in remote parts of the globe weren’t reported. When short-lived hurricanes are filtered from the historical results and missed hurricanes from earlier years are estimated and added in, the long-term average is essentially unchanged.

What has risen sharply, according to some scientists, is hurricane severity. They say the average annual number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes, which together cause nearly half of all hurricane damage, has more than doubled since the early 1970s. That’s a big deal because—and here’s something few people realize—climate change models suggest the number of hurricanes will, if anything, decline. What will rise is the intensity of the ones we get.

Why? An important factor in hurricane strength is fluctuations in sea surface temperature, or SST. A hurricane is a giant heat engine, drawing its energy from warm ocean water. The warmer the water, the more powerful you’d expect hurricanes fed from it to be.

Sure enough, changes in SST in the North Atlantic during the 20th century track reasonably closely with regional hurricane intensity. From 1950 to the mid-1970s, when ocean waters cooled, possibly because of a buildup in atmospheric pollution, hurricane severity declined. From the mid-’70s onward, ocean surface temperatures went back up and hurricanes got worse.

Or so some claim. Skeptics, however, contend that what looks like a jump in hurricane severity over the past 40 years is the result in part of underestimating storm intensity in the ’70s and ’80s. This illustrates the larger problem: nearly everything we can say about hurricanes is in dispute. A major stumbling block is lousy data. In contrast to tree rings, sediment layers, and other reliable climate change markers, information about hurricanes sucks.

Observation via aircraft didn’t begin until the 1940s. Satellite surveillance started in the 1960s but offered limited information; solid estimates of hurricane wind speeds didn’t become available until 1989. Result: we lack enough reliable, long-term global hurricane data to draw any firm conclusions.

Even the decent long-term data we have for North Atlantic hurricanes represents a fraction of the world total and is subject to a decades-long natural cycle that at the moment is on the rise.

What about that widely publicized report last fall from the insurance company Munich Re saying storm damage claims in North America have quintupled over the past three decades, with a trillion dollars in losses and 30,000 dead? Turns out much of that was due not to climate change but to dopes doing things like building houses in flood zones.

Once you account for population growth and suburban sprawl, a good deal of the apparent increase in losses goes away. A 2011 meta-study looked at 22 recent analyses of loss trends following natural disasters and found that (a) in only eight studies did the researchers conclude there’d been an actual climate-driven increase in losses (that is, not due to there being more victims with more to lose) and (b) any of the eight could have reached the opposite conclusion had certain assumptions and omissions been corrected.

But you know what? I’d just as soon keep mum about that. There’s a long list of scholarly studies showing human activity is almost certainly affecting the climate. So far they’ve had no noticeable impact on the know-nothing element, whose idea of a smoking gun evidently is having the ocean lapping at their doorsteps. Hurricane Sandy, by scaring the daylights out of the New York media people who set the national agenda, has at last gotten the climate change conversation off the dime. Can we legitimately blame that disaster on global warming? No, but I’m not going to object if a lot of people do.

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