Have you noticed how our weather is becoming humanised? Until recently, we might have noted in conversation: “bit windy last night.” Now we are more likely to hear something along the lines of: “took a bit of a battering from that Barney last night,” or “I blame Bruce Lee myself.” Not only does the current trend for naming extreme meteorological phenomena make discussions of the weather close to incomprehensible, it also makes the events sound friendlier and more cuddly.
This is a dangerous route to go down. Whether a storm is called Gertrude – the name awaiting the seventh storm of the UK winter – or is anonymous, it makes no difference to its capacity for devastation and loss of life. Worse, we might take fewer precautions if we are warned, not of imminent destructive winds, but of the arrival on our shores of Katie or Nigel. Take Patricia, for example. She might sound far too sensible to cause anyone any problems, but the reality was very different. Patricia was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded, and the most intense western hemisphere storm of all time. In late October 2015, Patricia exploded from run-of-the-mill storm into a full-blown Category 5 hurricane. The core barometric pressure plunged to an astonishingly low 879 millibars, driving encircling winds that reached sustained speeds of a staggering 325km/h.
Patricia had the potential to cause massive devastation. Fortuitously, she weakened rapidly as she approached western Mexico, and made landfall in a sparsely populated part of Jalisco state. A big sigh of relief following the reprieve has been replaced by growing concern over the possibility of a future Patricia ploughing into a densely populated region like Miami or New York.
As global temperatures climb, consensus holds that although overall storm numbers may not rise, the big ones will become more frequent. This applies equally to the events that are fed by the warm waters of tropical oceans, and to the broadly less powerful storms that periodically rampage across the UK and continental Europe during the autumn and winter months. In fact, this seems to be happening already, with five of the seven most intense Pacific hurricanes making their appearance in the first 15 years of the new century. In the Atlantic the pattern also seems clear, with five of the 10 most intense hurricanes on record occurring since 2004.
An inkling of just how bad things might get is provided by 1979’s Typhoon Tip. As Tip meandered across the northwestern Pacific, winds peaked at 310km/h – just a little lower than those experienced during Patricia. Tip was a colossal storm with a diameter of more than 2,000km, but blew itself out before making landfall. A future nightmare scenario might involve increasing numbers of Typhoon Tips crashing into coastal cities at peak power. Whether such storms have cuddly names like Mildred or Maureen will make absolutely no difference to the devastation they wreak or the lives they take.