12 August 2009

No Change in Atlantic Tropical Cyclone Frequencies Over More than a Century

NOAA issued a press release yesterday on a major new peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Climate (emphasis added):
A NOAA-led team of scientists has found that the apparent increase in the number of tropical storms and hurricanes since the late 19th and early 20th centuries is likely attributable to improvements in observational tools and analysis techniques that better detect short-lived storms. . .

According to Dr. Brian Soden, a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosentiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, “The study provides strong evidence that there has been no systematic change in the number of north Atlantic tropical cyclones during the 20th century.
There have been (as of this writing) exactly zero news stories on the paper. Whatever the reasons, there is clearly a huge bias against reporting on scientific studies that do not support a particular perspective on climate change as being catastrophic or worse than we thought.

A few years ago Andy Revkin at the New York Times explained this dynamic as follows:

There are a variety of reasons that the media tend to pay outsize attention to research developments that support a “hot” conclusion (like the theory that hurricanes have already been intensified by human-caused global warming) and glaze over on research of equivalent quality that does not.

The main one, to my mind, is an institutional eagerness to sift for and amplify what editors here at The Times sometimes call “the front-page thought.” This is only natural, but in coverage of science it can skew what you read toward the more calamitous side of things. It’s usually not agenda-driven, as some conservative commentators charge. It’s just a deeply ingrained habit.