Veep’s glib and evasive answer on climate change and hurricanes bugs Florida man

October 15, 2020 7:00 am

Hurricane Sally made landfall near Pensacola as a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 105 mph. Credit: National Hurricane Center.

Last week, the big news out of the vice-presidential debate was the bug news. A fly landed on Vice President Mike Pence’s head and stayed there for more than two minutes.

Fly jokes flew all over the internet. Someone created a Twitter account for the infamous insect, and it soon had more than 200,000 followers.

“Look, Ma, I’m on TV!” was its first tweet.

I’m not suggesting that this is emblematic of a society more fixated on surface images than actual substance. Honestly, we all need a good laugh these days. My whole family laughed about the fly and made all the jokes that everyone else made. But, afterward, it was something else from the debate that stuck in my mind the way that fly stuck to Pence’s perfectly coiffed hair.

The moderator, Susan Page, asked a question about climate change — specifically, she asked Pence if he agreed with scientists that human alterations to the climate made hurricanes more powerful.

Pence’s response was one that Dickens’ Artful Dodger would have admired.

Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence. Official portrait.

While mangling the name of the agency, he said that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “tells us that, actually, as difficult as they are, there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago, but many of the climate alarmists use hurricanes and wildfires to try and sell a bill of goods.”

When he said that, I thought, “Spoken like a man from a landlocked state.”

People in Pence’s Indiana homeland may be unaware of what’s going on with hurricanes because it doesn’t affect their lives. But folks here in Florida have seen the changes first-hand. After all, we’re the state that gets hit the most by hurricanes.

Clobbered by a cavalcade

In just the past 20 years we’ve been clobbered by a cavalcade of catastrophes named Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Wilma, Katrina, Irma, Michael, and Sally. If you’re like me, you recognize most of those names. You recall with a shudder their howling winds and surging floods and the damage they left behind.

Pence’s claim that we’re seeing the same number of hurricanes as a century ago was a clever evasion, because no one can say if that’s true. In 1920 we had no satellites spotting disturbances off the coast of Africa. No government agency was naming storms back then. The Saffir-Simpson scale for hurricane strength, invented by two Florida men, didn’t yet exist.

What records we have from 1920 show just four hurricanes and one tropical storm that year. One of the hurricanes hit Cedar Key, but it had weakened to a tropical storm by then.

Say we broaden our timeframe to look at the whole decade. Between 1911 and 1920, a total of 21 hurricanes made landfall. One of those years, 1916, set the record for the number of hurricanes to hit the United States in one year — nine.

This year we broke that 1916 record. We’ve seen so many storms — 23 so far — that we ran out of names and had to switch to Greek letters. When Category 4 Hurricane Delta smashed into Louisiana a mere two days after the vice-presidential debate, it marked the 10th hurricane to make landfall in the United States this year. The number that have made landfall this decade so far is 23, slightly more than 100 years ago.

But moderator Page didn’t ask about the number of hurricanes. She asked about changes to our climate making hurricanes worse. Her specific wording: “Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded, that man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter, and more deadly and have made hurricanes wetter, slower, and more damaging?”

Someone from Florida would know the answer to the part about hurricanes should be a resounding yes.

Stronger storms, sinking land sales

To get the definitive answer on this, I called up Florida’s official state climatologist — yes, we have one, believe it or not. As with infectious disease experts like Dr. Fauci, the politicians don’t always listen to him. His name is David Zierden and he runs the Florida Climate Center at Florida State University.

David Zierden, state climatologist at the Florida Climate Center. Credit: Florida State University.

He told me that scientists agree that hurricanes are indeed more powerful than they used to be. He pointed me to a 2008 study from an FSU professor named James Elsner that concluded: “Atlantic tropical cyclones are getting stronger on average, with a 30-year trend that has been related to an increase in ocean temperatures over the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere.”

That trend has become even clearer since that study was published. Zierden cited three factors that tie this to how we’re altering our world:

Sea level rise has made storm surges worse. Figure the level has risen about a foot in the past century, he said. Now add that foot on top of a 5-foot storm surge and you’ve got a 6-footer that goes much farther inland in our extremely flat state. By the end of this century, the sea level will be another foot higher.

A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, he pointed out, so “the amount of rainfall is increasing and will continue to increase.”

Warmer oceans make the storms get very bad very fast, something scientists call “rapid intensification.” That means the wind speed ratchets up by 35 mph in just 24 hours or less, making it hard for meteorologists to predict.

For an example of rapid intensification, look no further than Hurricane Michael, fueled by a warmer-than-usual Gulf of Mexico.

In less than 48 hours, it jumped from a Category 1 to a powerful Category 4. It made landfall at Mexico Beach with winds clocking in at 161 mph and a peak storm surge of 9 to 14 feet — the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Florida in 1992.

2018 Hurricane Michael. Credit: YouTube.

“This storm fell nothing short of extraordinary when it came to intensification,” the National Weather Service reported in its history of Michael. Two years later, folks in the Panhandle are still picking up the pieces, trying to rebuild.

“The consensus is that we’re going to see more of these stronger storms,” Zierden told me. “And the upper limit of how strong hurricanes can get is going to increase.”

Pence spoke dismissively of “climate alarmists,” but folks, as a Floridian, I find this hurricane situation pretty alarming.

You know who else is alarmed about what climate change is doing to Florida? Would-be real estate buyers.

A study released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that from 2013 to 2018, home sales volumes in Florida communities dealing with sea level rise “declined 16-20 percent relative to less-SLR-exposed areas.” Then, in the past two years, “relative prices in these at-risk markets … declined by roughly 5 percent from their peak.”

What’s happened? The study’s authors say, “We propose a demand-side explanation for our findings where prospective buyers have become more pessimistic about climate change risk than prospective sellers.”

If I were in the real estate business, I’d find that pretty alarming, wouldn’t you?

But neither Pence nor his boss take climate change or hurricanes very seriously. Remember the guy who tossed paper towel rolls to the survivors of Hurricane Maria (another storm that underwent rapid intensification)? It was as if he thought the way to deal with a huge storm surge was to sop it up with lots of Bounty.

Sorry if I’m going on and on about this, but how we deal with this problem is pretty important to the future of Florida.

It’s much too important for us to let a slick politician give a glib and evasive answer and let it go. With apologies to Pence’s fly, this is the sort of thing that really bugs me — and it should bug you too.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.