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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Storms are becoming ever more survivable

A big wind hitting Britain today does less harm than in past centuries

My Times article on the storm that was to hit Britain on 28 October. In the event, four or five people died. Disruption to transport lasted only a few days.

 

If you are reading this with the hatches battened down, it may not be much comfort to know that 2013 has been an unusually quiet year for big storms. For the first time in 45 years no hurricane above Category 1 has made landfall from the Atlantic by this date, and only two in that category, confounding an official US government forecast of six to nine hurricanes in the Atlantic, three to five of which would be big. Even if the last month of the hurricane season is bad, it will have been a quiet year.

It’s not just the Atlantic that is quiet. Globally, the “accumulated cyclone energy” of all big tropical storms — known as hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons, depending on the ocean — looks to be heading for one of the lowest numbers on record (though there are two months to go).

You cannot read much into a single year’s events, of course. None the less, the apocalyptic predictions of ever worsening storms made in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed New Orleans, seem to have been wide of the mark. There has been no trend up or down in storm frequency or power since the 1960s, when satellites began measuring these things.

The way bad storms are beamed into our living rooms today probably gives the opposite impression. Yet the run-up to an impending storm tends to get more coverage than the
clean-up afterwards, leaving a false impression of unrepaired devastation. The more salient trend to draw from weather in the modern era is that whatever it throws at us, we are getting better at coping: civilisation has become steadily more resilient in the face of natural disasters.

The financial cost of storms goes up and up, of course, as the insurance industry never tires of reminding us. But then so does the value of the economy — there are more coastal properties worth more money and more fully insured. The trend in insurance claims tells you nothing about the weather itself. Indeed, as Professor Roger Pielke, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Congress last year, global insured catastrophe losses have not increased as a proportion of GDP since 1960.

For all the havoc that today’s St Jude’s storm may bring to transport and property in Britain, and even if it does result in tragic loss of life, the effect is bound to be less than it would have been in times past. In any other century a storm such as today’s would have killed more people, wrecked more ships, destroyed more crops and left more people homeless than it will do today.

In November 1703, for instance, a great storm destroyed the Eddystone lighthouse, drowned 1,500 Royal Navy sailors in 13 sunken men-of-war, killed 400 people in the Somerset Levels, piled up 700 ships in the Pool of London, tore lead off Westminster Abbey’s roof, killed the Bishop of Bath and Wells in his bed with a falling chimney, and left towns on the South Coast looking “as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces”, in Daniel Defoe’s words. There must have followed a pretty bleak winter for many poor people.

Thanks to forecasts, warnings, better building materials and rescue services, we are more likely to survive today. Consider, for example, that the Met Office was telling us last week roughly where today’s storm would strike before it had even been born in the western Atlantic. That was not possible in 1703; indeed it was far from easy in 1987, as Michael Fish can attest.

Putting society and infrastructure back together after a weather disaster is also much quicker today than it would have been 300 years ago. There is virtually nothing that a storm does that cannot be undone by bulldozers and builders. The same is not always true of volcanoes and earthquakes.

The fierce cyclone that hit eastern India this month killed only 17 people, after it was well forecast and 800,000 people were evacuated from its path, a sharp contrast to the 10,000 killed in the same region by a cyclone 14 years ago. That India was in a good position to issue warnings and implement evacuation plans this time is largely a function of the intervening years of economic growth, plus the evolution of technology: nearly a billion Indians use mobile phones today, compared with hardly any in 1999.

The global death rate as a result of tropical storms (cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes - [correction add tornadoes to the list]) was 55 per cent lower in the 2000s than it had been in the 1970s [corrected from 1960s]. Much of that change is down to technology, but freedom helps too. In 2007 Hurricane Dean, a Category 5 storm, struck the Yucatan in capitalist, middle-income Mexico, but the country was well prepared and not a single person died. A year later a storm of similar ferocity hit impoverished, authoritarian Burma and killed about 200,000 people.

One of the things that makes the world more resilient to weather disasters is trade. In 1694, some 15 per cent of the entire population of France starved after heavy rains destroyed the third harvest in a row, while plenty of food existed elsewhere in Europe. Trade was so small a part of the economy that the means to get sufficient grain into France from other countries in Europe simply did not exist. At one point a convoy of 120 ships left Norway to bring grain to France, but was captured by the Dutch before being heroically recaptured by the privateer Jean Bart and escorted in triumph to Dunkirk. Yet even this was not enough to save many French lives.

Today a disastrous harvest in one region merely leads to an upward nudge in global food prices as food is diverted to the affected region. It would be almost impossible for famine to occur in a world where voluminous and truly free trade existed — because simultaneous harvest failures all around the world are virtually impossible, while rising prices would draw food to hungry regions. World trade reduces the risk of disaster.

I am often told that globalisation makes us more vulnerable, because a country such as Britain depends on other countries for many of the goods we need, so a natural disaster or a trade embargo would leave us desperate. But I am not convinced. Britain is no more precarious for getting its laptops and combine harvesters from abroad than a town is precarious for getting its bread from the countryside, or an office worker is precarious for getting his electricity from a plug.

Indeed local trade is vulnerable to weather disasters in a way that international trade is not. Interdependence actually spreads risk. As individuals we gave up self sufficiency tens of thousands of years ago partly because it reduced risk. And there is nothing more precarious than a self-sufficient community, which could be destroyed by a single storm, drought or flood.

So, when this storm has passed, say a little thank you to technology and globalisation for the fact that, on the whole, even the very worst weather need not disrupt your life very severely or for very long.