12 January 2012

Follow Up: NOAA to Redo its Billion-Dollar Disasters Database

This is an interesting follow up to this post on Bad Economics at NOAA . . . 

The Washington Post reports that NOAA has decided to address the fundmanetal errors in its tabulation of billion-dollar disasters:
Capital Weather Gang and many other major media outlets, using information from NOAA, have reported 2011 set a record for most billion dollar weather disasters in the U.S. NOAA even developed a glitzy website to highlight the record. But a professor at the University of Colorado says NOAA’s information - the basis for the record - is “extremely misleading and scientifically inaccurate.”

Roger Pielke, Jr., professor of environmental studies, says the problem is that NOAA excludes certain disasters from the early years of its 1980-2011 record, that would be billion dollar weather events in today’s dollars.

Although NOAA adjusts for inflation the dollar amount for all of the events in its record using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the database is limited to those events that caused at least $1 billion in damage “at the time of the event”. In other words, many events in the 1980s and 1990s that produced damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars at the time are not included. But they would likely reach the $1 billion mark in today’s dollars.

“...by focusing on a $1 billion threshold, as $1 billion comes to represent less and less over time, NOAA has built in a strong bias in their analysis which creates the illusion of trend,” Pielke wrote in a blog post.

NOAA does not deny its billion dollar weather disaster database could be enhanced.

“...these sub-billion-dollar disasters are important to handle correctly” wrote Justin Kenney, a NOAA spokesperson in an email.
Let me gently suggest that the time to get the science correct was probably before the creation of a "glitzy website" advertising the flawed results.

There is one major concern I have however, based on this statement from NOAA:
For its part, NOAA is reworking its billion dollar weather disaster record to be more comprehensive says Kenney. Via email, he wrote:

“We are in the process of re-analyzing all of our data on billion-dollar events since 1980. At the upcoming American Meteorological Society meeting in New Orleans, we will present a preliminary analysis that represents one approach to accounting for sub-billion dollar events that, after the CPI adjustment, exceed the one-billion dollar threshold.”
High quality science in this area -- essentially a reanalysis of 30+ years of weather extremes, some of which lack basic economic loss data, is probably going to take more than a week!

But the larger point here should not be missed -- if you are looking for evidence of changes in climate or on record extremes, you should be looking at weather and climate data, not economic data. Hopefully, NOAA (and people who use NOAA's data) will get that basic point. Now that NOAA is taking steps to improve their product, they should be encouraged for doing the right thing.