| |

The science of extreme weather

Our Lord has given humans the responsibility for creation, and he has given us two overarching commandments – love our God above all and love our neighbour as ourselves. It is in this context that the consequences of humans’ effect on our world’s climate and the devastation of the recent hurricanes have to be considered. The human cost of these weather events is staggering, with ramifications in developed countries like the U. S. and in developing countries’ poverty such as we’ve seen most recently in the Caribbean and also in the Eastern Pacific in the past.

Many people respond generously by giving aid to those affected by these storms (and other disasters such as earthquakes). Christian organizations mobilize and churches schedule special offerings to fulfill the second commandment. These are noble efforts and should be central to what we do as children of God. The need is very, very real and very, very large, and we who are so rich have a responsibility to help.

But I wonder: are we also paying attention to our responsibility for creation? The very broad consensus among climate scientists is that human activity is having a significant effect on the world climate. The clearly significant increase in carbon dioxide in our air has its roots in our increased burning of carbon in the form of coal and oil. Human pollution is changing the air and also the water, which in turn has a profound effect on our weather. This brings up the question: are these climate changes also changing the probability and severity of extreme storms? In very broad terms, one consensus among scientists is that the climate change observable today will lead to more extreme weather events of all types. Exactly how these events will be manifest is not clear.

Severe weather 101
Scientists are not yet able to predict hurricanes very accurately. Hurricanes are relatively rare events, plus accurate records of hurricanes go back only about 50 to 100 years, which is not sufficient data to enable accurate predictions for the future. In addition, observation methods have changed over this time (initially, for example, hurricanes were detected only by passing ships or by their land fall), so many hurricanes could have been missed. Sea surface temperature influences the generation of hurricanes, and our method of measuring this has also changed – from using buckets of water drawn up from ships to satellite measurement.

Despite these challenges, the weather modeling that has been done on hurricane development reveals some trends common to most models and other factors on which the various models differ. Assuming that the predicted changes in climate do in fact occur, most hurricane models do not predict an increase in the number of these tropical storms by 2100. A few models predict that as the climate warms, there may actually be a decrease in the average number of storms. But most models also predict that the storms that do occur will be more intense – we will see more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, as we have this summer. They also predict that these more intense hurricanes will bring more rainfall and water surges, therein causing more damage.

It is tempting to look at the storms of this year and draw different conclusions, but with relatively rare events this would be misleading. As we collect more data over the next number of years and see how carbon dioxide changes affect average temperature, it is expected that these models will get better. Then we may be in a stronger position to know how our general effects on climate alter extreme storms, but at this point we are making educated guesses.

Extreme storms do clearly reveal that human choices have had a profound effect on the consequences of these storms. Building houses on the coast and flood plains is something that we do, sometime voluntarily and sometime out of necessity, but perhaps this should be viewed as a literal case of the fool who built his house on the sand (Matt. 7:26).  

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

You just read something for free.

But it didn’t appear out of thin air. Writers, editors and designers at Christian Courier worked behind the scenes to bring hope-filled, faith-based journalism to you.

As an independent publication, we simply cannot produce award-winning, Christ-centred material without support from readers like you. And we are truly grateful for any amount you can give!

CC is a registered charity, which is good news for you! Every contribution ($10+) is tax-deductible.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *