ConWebWatch home
ConWebBlog: the weblog of ConWebWatch
Search and browse through the ConWebWatch archive
About ConWebWatch
Who's behind the news sites that ConWebWatch watches?
Letters to and from ConWebWatch
ConWebWatch Links
Buy books and more through ConWebWatch

The Life and Death of A Right-Wing Talking Point loved to suggest global warming doesn't exist by highlighting the amount of time between "major" hurricanes hitting the U.S. -- until Hurricane Harvey put an end to that narrative.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 9/6/2017

See if you can detect a theme being pushed by, mostly by reporter Barbara Hollingsworth, in these articles starting around mid-2015:

Susan Jones

Hollingsworth has to qualify her count by not only insisting on it being a "major hurricane" -- that is, category 3 and above -- but that it also has to make U.S. landfall at that strength. The Hurricane Matthew doesn't count, she insists in that last article on the above list -- dated October 2016 -- because "Matthew had weakened to a Category 1 by the time it made landfall near McClellanville, S.C. on October 8th with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph." Nor does the storm best known as Superstorm Sandy, because "Hurricane Sandy had been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone by the time it made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012." She does concede those storm caused substantial damage in the U.S., though.

Since CNS is not normally interested in weather, there has to be a right-wing political angle to this. And there is, as Hollingsworth explained in that last article: "Many climate scientists have predicted that anthropogenic global warming caused by an increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere would result in an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes." The growing amount of time between "major" hurricanes, then, must mean that global warming does not exist.

What Hollingsworth is much less likely to promote: the "hurricane drought" doesn't really mean anything. As Jason Samenow. the Washington Post Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist, explained:

The major-hurricane metric both leaves out significant storms because of its narrow definition and is misleading as an overall indicator of storm activity.

Climate-change doubters point to the lack of major-hurricane landfalls as evidence that global warming is not affecting the storms. But, in reality, nine of the last 11 Atlantic hurricane seasons have produced more storms than normal. It’s just that those with the strongest winds have remained over the ocean — something researchers have ascribed to dumb luck.

The major-hurricane-landfall drought is an interesting statistic, and that’s about it. It is a fine metric to track and report as a curiosity, but it cannot be used to say anything useful about how hurricanes are affecting society or how their behavior may or may not be changing over time.

Hollingsworth tried to play gotcha with a couple of climate scientists in that last article, but they both did a fact-slap on her:

“You and many other climate scientists have predicted an increase in hurricane activity due to anthropogenic global warming. But with carbon dioxide levels at a record high, why are we now seeing the longest major hurricane drought on record here in the U.S.?” CNSNews asked [MIT atmospheric science professor Kerry] Emanuel.

“One must be aware that the North Atlantic has only 11 percent of the world’s hurricanes, and that we do not expect the global warming signal to be seen in global statistics for several decades,” he replied. “By the time one drills down to major U.S. landfalls, a tiny percentage of total activity, it may be decades to detect a signal.

“As you know, Matthew was a very near miss. That would have ended the drought, but not solved the problem of trying to detect a climate signal in a very tiny subset of global hurricane activity,” Emanuel said.

CNSNews posed the same question to oceanographer and Climate Progress founding editor Joe Romm, who also predicted an increase in hurricane activity due to climate change, and who recently wrote that “Hurricane Matthew is super strong – because of climate change.”

“You have fallen into a mostly semantic trap,” he replied, referring to an article he wrote for ClimateProgress arguing that NOAA’s criteria for defining a major hurricane is flawed.

“The media should be reporting that in a world where storm surge is causing most of the devastation for the most destructive hurricanes, defining a ‘major’ hurricane around its wind speed (at landfall) is archaic at best and wildly misleading at worst,” Romm wrote.

To counter that, Hollingsworth called in climate denier and non-scientist (and former CNS reporter) Marc Morano to assert that, in her words, "those who predicted more major hurricane activity due to climate change now want to change the definition of a major hurricane because their predictions have fallen short of reality." She doesn't discuss the narrowness of her own definition of a major hurricane.

Hurricane Harvey, and the end of a talking point

As the 2017 hurricane season arrived, this favorite CNS talking point returned as well. Intern Gage Cohen regurgitated it in a June 1 article, stating that "The 2017 hurricane season begins today, June 1--a record 139 months after the last major hurricane made landfall in the continental United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration." Cohen did a mild rewrite of the article on June 24, declaring that "Saturday, June 24 marked the completion of a record 140 straight months since the last major hurricane made landfall in the continental United States."

But as Hurricane Harvey bore down on Texas, CNS saw that it needed to change its arguments, though not its conclusion -- climate denialism is right-wing dogma that can't be disputed, after all.

On Aug. 24, reporter Susan Jones invoked that longtime template one last time: "Thursday, August 24, 2017 marks a record 142 straight months since the last major hurricane made landfall in the continental United States. But that record major-hurricane drought may be coming to an end." She continued CNS' arbitrary designation of "major hurricane" as one being category 3 or higher.

The next day, as Harvey bore down on Texas, Jones seemingly contradicted this talking point by pointing out how hurricanes hit Texas seemingly all the time: "A total of 63 hurricanes have made landfall in Texas since record-keeping began in 1851, according to data posted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Harvey would be number 64." She also included a list of hurricanes that hit Texas, highlighting how many years it was between hurricanes.

That was followed a couple hours later by another Jones article, in which she flip-flopped again by downplaying how many "major hurricanes" there have been:

Major hurricanes, defined as Category 3 or higher, have made direct landfall in the continental United States in every decade since 1851, except for the present decade. That may change tonight.

Since 1851, when the government started keeping records, 274 hurricanes have made direct landfall in the continental United States (see note below), according to data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Of those 274 direct-landfall hurricanes, only 94, or 34.30 percent, have been "major" storms, defined as Category 3 or higher, with winds at or above 111 miles an hour.

A note at the end of Jones' article reminded readers just how narrowly she was defining things: "The 274 direct-landfall number excludes hurricanes that did not make landfall in the continental U.S. but may have produced hurricane-force winds on land from locations offshore; and it excludes four storms that made landfall in Mexico, producing hurricane-force winds in Texas."

Finally, when Harvey made landfall, Jones wrote a rare weekend article with a final talking-point body count, as it were: "Hurricane Harvey roared ashore near Corpus Christie as Category 4 storm late Friday night, breaking a record 4,323-day (142-month, 12-year) major hurricane drought." And, of course, more caveats about how narrowly she's defining things:

Since 2005, only nine relatively minor hurricanes (Categories 1 or 2 – and yes, they can be damaging) have made direct landfall in the United States.

That does not include the devastating superstorm Sandy, which approached New Jersey as a Category 1 hurricane, but transitioned into a “post-tropical cyclone” just before making landfall near Atlantic City, N.J. in October 2012, according to the National Weather Service.


(As noted above, Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of the crowded New York-N.J.-New England area during Obama’s term, but it was not a hurricane when it hit land.)

Jones concluded her article with a little Trump stenography, this time transcribing Trump's Harvey-related tweets.

And, thus, a right-wing talking point whimpers off into the night.

Send this page to:

Bookmark and Share
The latest from

In Association with
Support This Site

home | letters | archive | about | primer | links | shop
This site © Copyright 2000-2017 Terry Krepel