Hurricane Irene and Climate Change


There is plenty of debate about how, if and in which way Hurricane Irene is related at all to climtae change. This plays directly into my Master’s Thesis, where I make the distinction between physical climate change and the idea of climate change.

Let me use the example of Hurricane Irene, which landed on the East Coast of the USA in August 2011, to illustrate the difference between physical climate change and the idea of climate change. In the aftermath of the hurricane’s devastation several sources such as news outlets[1], nature writer Bill McKibben and Governor of Vermont Pete Shumlin made claims that climate change had caused the hurricane and that there was a relationship between the two. Bill McKibben said “Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s Global Warming”[2] while Governor Shumlin claimed there is a “relationship between climate change, fossil fuels, our continuing irrational exuberance about burning fossil fuels, in light of these storm patterns that we’ve been experiencing… We didn’t used to get weather patterns like this in Vermont. We didn’t get tropical storms.”[3] In response to these claims two environmental bloggers, Andy Revkin and Roger Pieke Jr. [4] commented that these claims were premature and painted a different picture of the events. What we see in McKibben’s and Shumlin’s comment are descriptions of physical climate change (in the case of Shumlin not even that, he merely describes weather, not climate, while McKibben does use data from a meteorologist) interspersed with a heavy ideological narrative of how climate change is connected to these weather phenomena. The responses of the bloggers both attempt to deal specifically with physical climate change using climate data and academic studies and avoid meddling in an ideological narrative, though they probably do have their own ideas about climate change. These studies present in fact a downward trend in hurricane landfall in the U.S. due to wind shear[5] and a long history of hurricane landfall in Vermont[6], such as “Hurricanes Edna and Hazel in 1954. Hazel tracked from the Carolinas all the way to the city of Toronto in Ontario, with wind gusts of over 70 mph and considerable tree losses in the Burlington area” (Dupigny-Giroux 2002).


[3] http://www.democracynow.org/2011/8/29/we_are_still_under_siege_vermont   The full quote: “I find it extraordinary that so many political leaders won’t actually talk about the relationship between climate change, fossil fuels, our continuing irrational exuberance about burning fossil fuels, in light of these storm patterns that we’ve been experiencing. Listen, since I’ve been sworn in as governor just seven months ago, I have dealt with—this is the second major disaster as a result of storms. We had storms this spring that flooded our downtowns and put us through many of the same exercises that we’re going through right now. We didn’t used to get weather patterns like this in Vermont. We didn’t get tropical storms. We didn’t get flash flooding. It wasn’t—you know, our storm patterns weren’t like Costa Rica; they were like Vermont. And the point is, we in the colder states are going to see the results of climate change first. We are. Myself, Premier Charest up in Quebec, Governor Cuomo over in New York, we understand that the flooding and the extraordinary weather patterns that we’re seeing are a result of our burnings of fossil fuel. We’ve got to get off fossil fuels as quickly as we know how, to make this planet livable for our children and our grandchildren. And I do think that there’s a relationship between the storms that we’ve been getting here in Vermont and the example, frankly, of what—they are an example of what lies ahead for us.

[6] http://www.vermonthistory.org/journal/70/vt701_204.pdf

Table 1: Tropical Remnants that Made Landfall In/Proximate to Vermont

Name Year Month, Day

[unnamed] 1927 November 3

Great New England 1938 September 21

#2 1949 August 29–30

Hurricane Baker 1952 September 1–2

Hurricane Carol 1954 August 31

Tropical Storm Brenda 1960 July 30

Hurricane Donna 1960 September 12

Tropical Storm Doria 1971 August 28

Hurricane Belle 1976 August 9–10

Hurricane David 1979 September 6–7

Hurricane Frederic 1979 September 14

Hurricane Gloria 1985 September 27

Tropical Storm Chris 1988 August 29

Hurricane Hugo 1989 September 22–23

Hurricane Bob 1991 August 19

Hurricane Opal 1995 October 5–6

Hurricane Bertha 1996 July 13

Hurricane Fran 1996 September 8–9

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2 thoughts on “Hurricane Irene and Climate Change

  1. Pingback: Climate Change and Severe Weather: Al Gore in Scotland « Faith & Environment

  2. Pingback: Catholic Symposium on Climate Change… and Hurricane Sandy « Faith & Environment

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