Every now and then, President Trump has what we like to refer to as “curious thoughts”. They’re scientifically illiterate notions or remarks that are just fascinating to behold. He’s previously suggested that doing too much exercise will deplete a person’s “finite amount of energy”, that coal can be physically scrubbed clean, and that wind is “very deceitful”.
Speaking of wind, the latest in his line of curious thoughts comes in the form of his hurricane knowledge, or lack thereof. First, while on the way to Florida on Air Force One, he told reporters that when it comes to Irma, “we’ve had bigger storms.” Then, while at a dinner reception at the White House, he said that he “never even knew a Category Five existed for hurricanes.”
The latter comment is plainly silly. Someone like the President should be aware of such basic facts about common natural disasters, but apparently not. What type of scale did he have in his mind before he was given the correct information? Was Hurricane Harvey a “bigly” storm, and was Irma ultimately just “sad”?
Either way, this is why the President desperately needs a science advisor. He’s the first president in living memory not to have one, and it’s looking likely he will never get one. Not having a scientific expert on hand during natural disasters is like going to war without consulting any military experts.
What about the first point then regarding bigger storms? Is Trump correct?
Hurricane Irma, in terms of the (somewhat flawed) Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, was the most powerful Atlantic Ocean storm on record. It didn’t do as much damage to Florida as it did to several Caribbean islands, some of which have been completely annihilated.
Although there have been hurricanes that impacted the US that have been more sizable, and there have been those at lower categories that have done far more long-lasting damage (see: Harvey and 2005’s Katrina), in terms of power in the way meteorologists measure hurricanes, Irma is right up there with the worst of them.
Irma made landfall in Florida as a Category Four storm. Only three Category Five hurricanes have ever made landfall in the US: Andrew (1992), Camille (1969), and an unnamed one in 1935, so do these qualify as the “biggest?”
The deadliest storm was arguably one that hit Texas back in 1900. Known as the Great Galveston Hurricane, the weaker infrastructure and non-existent flood defenses at the time meant this Category Four storm killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people.
So yes, by some measures, Irma was not the “biggest” hurricane ever, but that doesn’t really mean anything. Weaker hurricanes can cause far more damage depending on their duration and path – but hey, with a president obsessed with size, what else did you expect him to say?
Really, what this comment was all about was climate change. Although you cannot say that there are more or less hurricanes because of climate change, it’s certain that hurricanes are becoming stronger and wetter thanks to some basic scientific principles and observational evidence.
That’s not really the sort of connection the Trump administration wants people to make, hence the remark that there have been bigger storms.