How well have the media covered hurricane Sandy? Scientists have their say.
- 06 Nov 2012, 13:15
- Roz Pidcock
As millions of people on the US east coast remain without power
in the wake of hurricane Sandy, the media are still speculating
over how far the storm can be linked to climate change. With a
complicated range of factors affecting hurricane activity, we asked
climate scientists how satisfied they are that the media got it
right this time?
Hurricane Sandy tore through the Caribbean and the US east coast
last week, killing 160 people and causing
$20 billion worth of damage. As the Guardian
points out, Sandy has forced climate change further up the
political and media agenda. Emilee Pierce from US media
fact-checking website, Media
Matters, told us:
"In the days leading up to landfall
in the U.S...very few in the press mentioned the words 'climate
change.' But once it hit New York and DC...the connections started
coming -- from journalists and politicians alike."
Using satellite data gathered since the 1970s, scientists have
found an increase in the intensity
of tropical cyclones, associated with a human-induced increase
surface temperature. But attributing specific storms to climate
Most news outlets carried the measured message from scientists
that while some specific extreme events,
such as heat waves, can be attributed to climate change, this
is far more difficult for
hurricanes. With this in mind, most scientists we spoke to
seemed broadly pleased with media outlets' coverage.
Kathy Maskell, communications manager with the Walker Institute for
Climate System Research at the University of Reading called the
majority of media coverage "accurate, informative and objective".
Dr Jeff Masters, who runs the online weather service Weather Underground,
agrees, citing one article in the
Boston Globe as one good example. On attribution, the
Boston Globe said:
"While Hurricane Sandy was not
directly attributable to global warming, scientists say it fits a
pattern of more severe weather influenced by climate
But some outlets couldn't help upping the ante. NBC Nightly News
anchor Robert Bazell stated that events like Sandy should be
considered the "new
normal". In response, Roger Pielke Jr, professor of
environmental studies at the University of Colorado wrote in the
Wall Street Journal that there are "no signs" that humans can
yet be blamed for recent disasters like Hurricane Sandy.
Other scientists took a different view. Professor Kevin
Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the US National
Center for Atmospheric Research, told Carbon Brief that the NBC
piece was an example of good reporting, describing Pielke Jr's
comments as "not helpful".
Even some measured stories couldn't escape a bit of spin.
Trenberth also pointed to
Bloomberg Businessweek's cover story, 'It's global warming,
stupid', as an example of good scientific coverage. But although
the story appears balanced and informative from a science
perspective, BusinessWeek editor Josh Tyrangiel
"Our cover story this week may
generate controversy, but only among the stupid."
Bloomberg BusinessWeek's take on the famous catchphrase from
Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.
An opinion expressed by meteorologist Dan Satterfield in his
blog is that the media should concentrate less on attribution
and more on the way climate change could exacerbate storm size and
Research suggests that warmer
water in the tropics provides storms with
more energy, making storms bigger and
more damaging. What's more, when storms pass over water
they create a surge
in sea level. Together with human-induced
sea level rise, this can cause widespread
flooding in vulnerable coastal areas.
According to the IPCC, the atmosphere is about 0.75
degrees warmer than it was at the start of the century and can
hold 5-6 per
cent more moisture. This means that there is more
water available to fall as rain.
Satterfield also explains how a weather system over Greenland,
possibly linked to Arctic
ice melt, may have blocked Sandy's path,
forcing it into heavily-populated coastal areas rather than
into the remote Atlantic Ocean.
More to come?
Professor Tom Knutson, meteorology expert with the US
Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, pointed to the
New York Times as a good analysis of the nuances between
linking hurricane activity and climate change. The article explains
the scientific uncertainty surrounding what the past record of
hurricane activity can tell us about the next few decades.
Most models suggest that as sea surface temperatures continue to
rise, the number of severe storms will increase.
many other environmental factors also influence the generation
and tracks of storms, including wind speed and direction in the
atmosphere. So pinning down the long term trend will require a longer
data record than we have now.
On how best to report the role of climate change, Knutson
"A trap reporters can fall into is
chasing after answers to a poorly worded strawman question:
Did climate change cause this event? Instead the science will
generally only be able to look at questions of attribution in
a probabilistic sense: Has climate change altered the odds of
events like this one occurring? How?"
So it seems that a few examples aside, scientists have been
fairly satisfied with reporters' representation of the science
behind hurricanes and climate change - both what we know and what
we don't know. With Hurricane Sandy gone but far from forgotten,
scientists seem hopeful that reporters can continue to ask the
right questions about climate science.