Are Storms Getting Worse?

The UK winter of 2013-4 was unusually turbulent – from the St Jude’s storm of 27 October which killed four people, through a January when parts of the Somerset Levels had their worst floods in a century to a February that saw the main railway line to the West Country washed away. And it was not just 2013-4, four of the five wettest years in UK history have happened since 2000.

storms getting worseNor is it just the UK. Disaster historian John Withington’s new book, Storm: Nature and Culture, tells how a hurricane was seen developing off the coast of Brazil for the first time ever in 2004. The following year, an American meteorologist reported that storms were 50 percent more powerful and were lasting 60 per cent longer than in 1949, and in August 2005, Hurricane Katarina became the costliest storm in history.

In 2010, up to 20 million people were caught up in floods in Pakistan caused by the most torrential monsoon rains in 80 years, and about 1,750 were killed. Pakistan was flooded out again in 2011, while Tropical Storm Nock-Ten brought Thailand’s worst floods in half a century. Fierce rain storms caused 500 deaths from mudslides in Brazil, the US had its worst tornado season since 1925, and Hurricane Irene became the first natural disaster to shut down New York’s subway system.

The global insurance giant, Munich Re, said 2011 was the costliest year in history for natural disasters. Then 2012 saw the biggest storm ever in the Atlantic – ‘Superstorm Sandy’ – 900 miles across. The following year, Typhoon Haiyan with its 200 miles an hour gusts became perhaps the fiercest storm ever to make landfall. More than 4,000 people were killed in the Philippines.

More support for the idea that storms are getting worse came from the Environment Maryland Research and Policy Centre which found the number of severe downpours over the continental United States had increased by nearly a quarter between 1948 and 2006, while the UN said the number of the strongest storms, Category 4 and 5, had nearly doubled between 1970 and 2004.

Most scientists now believe that the world is warming up, with 15 of the hottest 16 years on record all happening since 2001, and 2014 and 2015 both setting records as the hottest ever. Global warming would be expected to bring more powerful storms because it means more water evaporates into the air, and warmer air can hold more vapour so when it does rain, the downpours are heavier.

In the UK, the Chief Scientist at the Met Office, Dame Julia Slingo, said the winter storms of 2013-4 were linked to global warming, but probably the most authoritative voice on the subject comes from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which seeks a consensus from the views of thousands of scientists all over the world. It predicts that downpours and tropical storms will get more powerful. The IPCC has warned that rising seas and more powerful storms could make a number of major cities, such as Mumbai, uninhabitable.

But there are other factors too. Global warming makes sea levels rise, so when storms whip up the oceans, they become even more devastating. And every day, there are 200,000 more humans – more people to be hurt, and more property to be damaged. Britain’s worst ever storm was the Great Storm of 1703, which killed about 8,000 on land and sea. A study found that if it happened again today, 18 million homes would be at risk.

Storm: Nature and Culture also explores the role of storms in religion, art, films and literature, examines how storms have changed the course of history, and tells the story of the worst storms of all time.

Withington, an award-winning television, radio and newspaper journalist, is the author of a number of books on the history of disasters, including Disaster!: A History of Earthquakes, Floods, Plagues, and Other Catastrophes, A Disastrous History of Britain: Chronicles of War, Riot, Plague and Flood, and London’s Disasters: From Boudicca to the Banking Crisis.