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Deadly Hurricanes Past and Future

Posted on 30 November 2012

By Richard Gambino

Hurricane Sandy killed 143 people — 69 in the Caribbean and 74 in the U.S. Its strongest winds measured 110 mph in Cuba and 90 mph in the U.S. Contrast this to a hurricane in October 1780 that killed more than 20,000 people, in the Caribbean, whose population was then a small fraction of what it is today, with wind gusts that may have reached 200 mph. My point is not to make light of the suffering caused by Sandy.

I’ve lived through several major hurricanes in my life, and seen terrible destruction caused by them. The first I remember, in 1960, when I was 21 years old, was Hurricane Donna (160 mph winds). I was alone in my parents’ home in East Rockaway (hit hard again by Sandy) in Nassau County, and carried and dragged all its furniture up to the second floor to save it from a surge rising fast from Reynolds Channel, putting four feet of salt water in the street and 18 inches into the high first floor of the house.

I raise history to make some points about weather phenomena. All in the light of a principle from no less a scientist than Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Elected officials and others tell us Sandy was the worst ever, and hurricanes have been growing worse in recent years. Not so. In addition to the 1780 monster, one in 1775 killed 4,000 people, as did one in 1928 (winds at 160 mph). And in 1776 another killed 6,000 people. All these in populations that were but fractions of that in 2102. And the infamous 1938 hurricane, with winds of 120 mph, produced terrible water surges, e.g., 17 ft. on Long Island, vs. Sandy’s 14 ft., and killed 700. I remember “Fifi” in 1974 (winds at 170 mph) that killed 8,000 in the Caribbean.

Examining history shows no discernable change in the occurrence of hurricanes and their strengths. Because the factors involved in them are for all practical purposes infinitely variable, with infinitely innumerable combinations and permutations of them possible. (Including being followed a week later by a cold nor’easter.)

I come to what we learned from a great meteorologist and expert regarding scientific knowledge, Edward Lorenz, a professor at MIT with a PhD in mathematics. In 1961, working with a simple computer, he made a “trivial” change (typing in “0.506” instead of “0.506127”) to simplify data for a weather simulation model, and found that the outcome was vastly different from the model without the change. He worked on the math and in 1972 published a paper that revolutionized our understanding of weather, and science, “Predictability: Does The Flap Of A Butterfly’s Wings In Brazil Set Off a Tornado In Texas?” His answer was, yes. And much more, there are so many constantly changing, for all practical purposes random, factors affecting weather that predictions about it are bound to be highly imperfect.

In fact this is also true in other major complicated systems, e.g., in physics and in economics. The press dubbed the now standard mathematical theory Lorenz formulated, “Chaos Theory.”

Apologies to those seeking to control everything, but the truth is that our ability to predict complicated systemic events in nature, let alone control them, is limited. Read again Einstein’s principle at the end of the first paragraph of this article.

 

RICHARD GAMBINO’s heart goes out to all those seriously hurt by Sandy.

 

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