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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

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
(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

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

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

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.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times