On September 28, 1955, a Category 5 hurricane named Janet slammed into Chetumal, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, killing over 600 people.
Hurricane Dean, another Category 5, and the third-strongest storm ever measured at landfall, hit in exactly the same place last Friday and killed no one. Maximum winds in both storms were indistinguishable. Not surprisingly, the hurricane-hunter pilot who flew through the eyewall of the storm Tuesday reported severe turbulence, a temporary loss of aircraft control. Probably for the first time in human history, a Category 5 storm hit a populated area and everyone lived.
Because of its peculiar location, the Yucatan takes more big hurricane hits than just about anywhere else in the Western hemisphere. When Mexico was dirt-poor, as it was in 1955, hurricanes could kill hundreds. They were warned, then, too. Hurricane-hunter planes also monitored Janet. Only one of these has ever been lost, and it was as Janet was making landfall.
Similar storms, huge storms, very different results. What's happening here?
Since then, people in the Yucatan have learned to adapt. While storms like these used to kill hundreds, even thousands, we now have the technology to forecast their tracks, at least for the critical last 24 hours, with reasonable confidence. Forecasting the intensity is a bit trickier, but everyone in the hurricane business was pretty convinced that Dean was going to bomb out sometime before it hit land. After all, it was passing over the same region in which the 1988 hurricane Gilbert set the record for the lowest barometric pressure ever measured in the Atlantic Basin.
Gilbert was the second-strongest storm ever recorded at landfall, and it also hit the Yucatan. While it was responsible for 202 deaths in Mexico, almost all of these were caused by mountain floods hundreds of miles away and days away from landfall.
Adaptation includes technology, infrastructure, and response. National Hurricane Center forecasts and data are available to everyone. But the infrastructure to respond to a forecast hurricane costs money, and poor nations don't have it. Among other things, it requires good roads for evacuation.
Perhaps even more important, adaptation to hurricanes or other natural disasters is political. No elected official wants to be blamed for hundreds of preventable deaths, so the nations that can afford it develop evacuation plans, open shelters, and deliver people from danger.
When Janet killed hundreds, per-capita income in Mexico was less than a tenth of what it is now, when Dean killed no one.
So why is it that people are wringing their hands about global warming causing more severe hurricanes and deaths?
The best computer estimate for future hurricanes was published by Tom Knutson and Robert Tuleya in the Journal of Climate in 2004. They calculated that maximum winds should increase by about 6% over the next 75 years. Even this may be an overestimate because the method used assumes carbon dioxide — the main global warming emission — is increasing in the atmosphere about twice as fast as it actually is.
Clearly, this small increase in hurricane strength is going to be dramatically overshadowed by adaptation as the developing world continues to develop. Mexico is a case in point.
We see other adaptations to climate change in our cities. In the United States, cities with the most frequent heat waves have the fewest heat-related deaths, and heat-related deaths are themselves dropping, as our cities warm. Remember, a city doesn't need global warming to get hot. All it needs is a skyline, and a lot of blacktop and concrete to impede the flow of air and retain heat. But in our warming cities, just as with hurricanes in the Yucatan, frequency + affluence = adaptation.
An odd example of this is that there is only one major U.S. city in which heat related deaths are increasing, and it is the coolest one in summer: Seattle.
Anyone concerned about climate change should take a lesson from Hurricane Dean. Even if storms like this become more frequent in the future, people will adapt and survive if they have the financial resources. How silly it seems to take those resources away in futile attempts to "stop global warming" — which no one even knows how to do — when they could save lives by allowing people to adapt to our ever-changing climate.
The truth is that money in the hand is a lot more useful than treaties on paper when it comes to sparing yourself and your family from bad weather. So people truly worried about climate change should be cheerleading for the global trade and economic development that will continue allowing us to adapt.