In three weeks we have transitioned from the summit of natural wonder, a total solar eclipse visible over a 70-mile swath of the US from coast to coast, to the depths of tragedy in coastal Texas. Hurricane Harvey is projected to be the most costly national disaster on record. Experts estimate the Houston cataclysm will require up to $180 billion in costs. In comparison, Hurricane Sandy required $160 billion and Hurricane Katrina $70 billion. Harvey has tragically taken the lives of 60 people. As I write, we are threatened by Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm.
When such an event strikes many people justifiably focus on the natural disaster at hand. Notwithstanding journalists’ citations of comparable past events, the present catastrophe overwhelms public attention. People desire detailed reporting of the present event and many journalists oblige them eagerly. Interest in the current disaster overcomes public desire to discover realistic historical perspectives of our planet’s long history of natural catastrophes. We do not minimize the present disaster in any way. Rather, we encourage analysis of historical records of hurricanes to acquire an overview of their past frequency, intensity, cyclicity, causes, and effects.
Hurricanes have been a feature of planet Earth’s weather throughout its long history. Bible students may be familiar with the account of Euroclydon in Acts 27. The Apostle Paul was caught in what might have been a Mediterranean tropical-like depression similar to an Atlantic hurricane. During an extensive sea journey lasting two weeks, the apostle was wind-driven around the Mediterranean, finally landing at Malta. His fourteen day saga was testament to the unpredictability of hurricanes. Some travel fast. Others travel slowly and even divert or reverse course. Hurricane Harvey’s 52 inches of rainfall at one Houston location was the result of its slow movement.
In North America, east coast hurricanes are generated in the broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Their formation and strength is dependent on many factors over the ocean. The impact of landfall is dependent on a great variety of other factors. Hurricane science is exceedingly complex as are many weather and climate phenomena. In the aftermath of the tragic impact of Hurricane Harvey, there have been many ambitious reporters who have joined the rampant cadre of modern climate change enthusiasts. Global warming enthusiasts have convinced a large segment of the population that climate change, formerly more often described as global warming, exacerbates the severity of these great storms. For example, a small increase in ocean surface temperature (0.85ºC from 1880-2012) has been cited as likely increasing the wind speed in hurricanes by a few miles per hour. A number of commentaries on Harvey have focused on climate change as causative. Much less attention is given to the fact that climate has changed naturally hundreds of times in the history of our planet.
As we composed this post, Hurricane Irma was threatening the US with potential for another meteorological tragedy. We quote Dr. Calvin Beisner, founder of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. He addressed the question of increased hurricane severity resulting from anthropogenic climate change in an email he sent on 9/5/17. Beisner accounts for the additional CO2 added to Earth’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. He states, “…Of the 175 mph maximum sustained winds of Hurricane Irma today, 173.3-174.6 mph would have occurred anyway, and of the 50 inches of rainfall that fell on some places from Hurricane Harvey, 49.5-49.9 would have fallen anyway.” Most journalists do not cite such specifics, but many people are persuaded by the claim of “increased severity” without knowledge of such statistics. It has been twelve years since a major hurricane (Category 3 or larger) has struck the United States mainland. Dr. Roy W. Spencer, NASA award-winning climatologist, reports, “This is the longest ‘drought’ in landfalling major hurricanes since records started in 1850…It goes to show how variable nature is.” Attributing the severity of Harvey to climate change illustrates the logical fallacy of “oversimplified cause:” an effect has multiple causes, but only one cause is identified.
The Galveston TX hurricane of 1900 claimed about 8000 lives. Some estimates are much higher. More lives were lost in that tragedy than in all US hurricanes combined since that time. We counsel readers to pray for those impacted by Harvey and Irma. We encourage readers to search for websites under topics such as “historic hurricanes” in order to lend valuable realistic perspective to the lively current topic of climate change. Our planet is a beautiful place to thrive, but subject to potent meteorological forces and effects on occasion. Hurricanes are but one destructive weather event. In perspective, they do not occur often enough to transform our planet from a place to thrive to a place of disaster. In this light we remain convinced that during the present age, Earth is still a wonderful place to thrive.
Passages from Job 37-38 relate many frightening but wondrous meteorological events. The lofty poetry of these chapters does not conceal some of the tragedies such weather events may cause. Many other scriptural passages describe the overall beauty and abundance provided by the planet. The Earth may still be described as “very good.” For this, we offer thanks to the God of Creation.