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A new analysis shows that Hurricane Harvey was a once in 25,000 year event. But that doesn't mean it will be another 25,000 years before another storm just like it occurs.

Climate Change

Hurricane Harvey Was A Once In 25,000 Year Storm

A new analysis shows that Hurricane Harvey was a once in 25,000 year event. But that doesn’t mean it will be another 25,000 years before another storm just like it occurs.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, its effects on the area were expected to be “unprecedented” and “beyond anything experienced,” according to the National Weather Service.

Hurricane Harvey Worse Than Feared

Harvey turned out to be even worse than feared, with rainfall in some areas approaching 50 inches. “Many textbooks have the 60-inch mark as a once-in-a-million-year recurrence interval,” the Washington Post reported in late August. It said Harvey dumped more than 9 trillion gallons of rain on the Houston area. How much water is that? This graphic from the Post says it all.

Hurricane Harvey graph via Washington Post

MetStat is a company that provides “detailed precipitation analysis” and “weather frequency analysis” to industries like utility companies that need to know where to put their infrastructure so it won’t be damaged by extreme weather events. It has now released an analysis of Hurricane Harvey, which finds that the storm was a once in 25,000 year event. In some locations, it resulted in an almost unimaginable once in 500,000 year event, which translates into a 0.0002% chance of such an enormous deluge happening in any given year. Probabilities that extreme “are calculated by extrapolating the distribution curves for precipitation observed over the last century,” MetStat’s Shauna Bokn explains.

To do its analysis, MetStat used an approach based on “average recurrence intervals.” The analysis looks at how long we would have to wait for a Harvey-level deluge to occur again in a given area, based on historical rainfall records. Bokn notes that “although extremely rare, rainfall statistics of this nature are routinely computed by companies like MetStat to ensure the safe operation and design of large dams and nuclear power plants.”

According to Think Progress, MetStat’s post-storm analysis found “an interesting atmospheric setup was present that allowed it to stay alive for so long; bringing devastation over such a widespread area.” In particular, “the jet stream was located at very high latitudes, allowed for very light wind shear over Texas, and this aided in the lack of movement for Harvey.” Noted climatologist Michael Mann explained while Harvey was happening: “The kind of stalled weather pattern that is drenching Houston is precisely the sort of pattern we expect because of climate change.”

Upstaged By Hurricane Irma

Once in 25,000 years or not, Harvey was soon replaced in the news cycle by Hurricane Irma, the Category 5 storm that swept through the Caribbean and up the west coast of Florida soon after Harvey was done pummeling the Houston area. Miami mayor Tomás Regalado, a Republican, issued a statement saying, “This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change. If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly a poster child for what is to come.”

To which, EPA administrator retorted that is was “insensitive” to bring up the subject of climate change while deadly storms were raging outside. “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced,” he said. “To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to this people in Florida.”

In its report on Pruitt’s remarks, the New York Times notes that, since the US government under #FakePresident Trump is now stocked with client deniers weaned on Koch Brothers money, “the fact that oceans and atmosphere are warming and that the heat is propelling storms into superstorms has become as sensitive as talking about gun control in the wake of a mass shooting.”

If Not Now, When?

By contrast, Ben Kirtman, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Miami, tells the Times he believes failing to discuss climate change hurts Florida and the entire country. “It’s precisely the conversation that we should be having right now. I’m not sure what’s insensitive about that. It’s really important to direct resources and funds to the crisis on the ground at the moment, of course. But I don’t see why what’s causing these storms and what’s contributing to making it worse is necessarily mutually exclusive.”

Leonard Berry, the former director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, agrees. “Immediately afterward we’ve got to say ‘Come on guys, let’s really see if this is a harbinger of the future.’ And it clearly is to those of us who have looked even generally at the issue,” he says. “One should be sensitive, but not stupid.”

When the conversation turns to stupid, that fat pantload Rush Limbaugh immediately comes to mind. The infamous draft dodger (like Trump himself) told his legion of adoring fans before Irma hit that all the talk of climate change was a bunch of hooey. “There is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it,” he pontificated. He told his listeners that “fear and panic” help sell batteries, bottled water, and TV advertising. He then promptly decamped from his palatial digs in Palm Beach to get out of the way of the Hurricane, showing he has about as much spine as an earthworm.

A Dangerous Myth

Climatologist Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University says, “The most pernicious and dangerous myth we’ve bought into when it comes to climate change is not the myth that it isn’t real or humans aren’t responsible. It’s the myth that it doesn’t matter to me. And that is exactly the myth that Harvey shatters.”

A survey released last week found several Republican lawmakers whose constituents were impacted by Hurricane Harvey are still not interested in talking about climate change. “We know that as humans, we are all too good at pretending a risk, even one we know is real, doesn’t matter to us,” says Hayhoe. She says that scientists have to keep talking about the risks. “We need to understand what’s at stake, because if not, we won’t act,” she said. The question at this point is whether it is possible to act in time.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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