If it seems like hurricanes have become more destructive in recent years, it’s because they have. Thanks to a new damage-framing method accounting for increases in societal wealth, researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute (NBI), University of Copenhagen, have confirmed that hurricanes have become three times more destructive since 1900. This new study was published this week in the online journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
Hurricane damage is typically measured by adding up the total cost of damage to people and cities. However, using this method, the costs of hurricanes in 2018 and 1950 would be vastly different based on discrepancies in wealth and population distribution. According to an article from NBI, “there are more of us and we are more wealthy, and there is quite simply more costly infrastructure to suffer damage.”
To combat these discrepancies and uncover a clearer picture of hurricane damage, Aslak Grinsted of NBI and colleagues devised a new calculation method that only uses the geographic footprint of the storm damage. Their approach frames damage as an “area of total destruction,” not including economic damage. This method allows for fairer comparisons between densely populated cities and more rural areas.
According to an article regarding the study from the AP, the researchers used their new method to compare 247 hurricanes that hit the United States since 1900. They discovered that those hurricanes with an area of total devastation larger than 467 square miles are occurring 3.3 times more often. Additionally, eight of the 20 strongest storms have happened in the past 16 years.
The researchers believe that their method better addresses climate-related changes in extreme weather events since it removes variance due to the uneven distribution of wealth. They state that the “climate signal,” which is defined as the effect climate change has on hurricane size, strength, and destructive force, is more apparent with their method.