Climate change is causing more intense storms, but not more death

Climate change means storms are increasing in severity and number, but the loss of life does not even come close to past storms.

Damage but Not Death

Hurricane Irma left 37 dead in the Caribbean and is being blamed for 6 fatalities in Florida. Those include an automobile fatality and one person who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning due to improper use of a generator.
Photo of Irma by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Harvey's death toll stands around 70 after the hurricane dropped record rainfall on Houston. While disaterous, that casualty count "astounds" experts.

It was astounding that we didn't have a much larger loss of life. It is a relatively low number for as big a storm as this was.
Dr. Philip B. Bedient, Director of SSPEED, Severe Storm Prediction Center at Rice University

The low fatality numbers are even more suprising when you look to the many Carribbean islands that were battered by Irma as a category 5 storm. 90% of the buildings in Bermuda were flattened by the storm according to reports. The Dutch and French split island of St. Martin saw massive devastation and food and water are currently in short supply. To be clear, the situation is dire, but the immediate loss of life one would expect of such a storm did not occur.

An aerial view over the damage of Hurricane Irma in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten, the Dutch portion of Saint Martin, on Sept 6. (EPA-EFE/Netherlands Ministry of Defence/Handout)

The Deadliest Storm

The Great Bhola cyclone of 1970 killed between 300,000-500,000 people in Eastern Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh). Using current hurricane categorization, the Bhola cyclone would only measure category 3 despite the startling loss of life.
(The only difference between a hurricane, cyclone and typhoon is the location)

Reports at the time blamed the high death toll on two factors: a lack of preparation and a lack of cooperation. The ruling junta in Pakistan ignored a report from the world's leading expert on hurricane detection and survival. The cost of implementing the plan was a mere $1.6 million.

The cyclone developed quickly from the remanants of an earlier storm and moved swiftly through the Bay of Bengal. With little meterological technology, Pakistan relied on reports from ship captains about the path and ferocity of the storm and most ships far enough in the water to monitor the storm were on Indian vessels. India withheld storm observations from their rival nation that may have triggered an evacuation and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

One report suggests 90% of those who died could have survived had the Pakistani government and local authorities prepared properly and had access to the vital information withheld by India.

The Silver Lining


There is no doubt that this year's storm season will leave destruction and human misery in its wake. It also offers a small sliver of hope.

Activists around the world have worked tirelessly to halt or reverse the devastating march of climate change. But they are also aware that the effects of climate change are already here. The Paris Accord and other climate agreements include a heavy focus on funding climate adaption for the most vulnerable. With proper funding, cooperation and planning, the world can at least mitigate the immediate impact of climate change and save thousands, if not millions of lives.

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