Thinking the Unthinkable about Hurricanes

Hurricane season runs from June through November, with September 10 as the peak of hurricane activity in the Atlantic. Right on schedule, Hurricane Irma blasted Florida on this very day, the season peak. Why are we cursed with such massive and destructive storms?

Theories abound. A cruel joke from Mother Nature. A consequence of global warming or climate change. Payback to America, and in particular Florida and Texas, for electing Donald Trump as president, as actress Jennifer Lawrence suggested. Or a way to drive up oil prices and hurt minorities, as some think George W Bush did with Katrina, steering the great storm into Louisiana.

Unanswered by news anchors and actresses, who likely never studied science beyond the high school level, are several questions.

First, if global warming has been occurring for the past several decades, at least since Time and Newsweek warned us in the mid 1970s of the perils of the coming ice age, why are Harvey and Irma the first major hurricanes to hit the US since 2005? We should have been getting pounded each and every year with ever more severe hurricanes. Didn’t Al Gore tell us that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was just the beginning? Why the 12-year hurricane drought?

Second, if global warming is causing more superstorms, why is Hurricane Irma ranked only number seven in severity of storms to hit the US? The worst being in 1935, before SUVs existed and when air conditioners were a rare luxury.

Third, what is a “normal” hurricane season? The past few weeks? The past 12 years? Who defines normal? Given that recorded hurricane history is only a few hundred years old, how do we know what hurricanes were like 500 years ago? Or 5,000 years ago? Or 50,000 years ago?

Suppose hurricanes happen for a different reason? What if there are benefits from hurricanes, a necessary part of the Earth’s ecosystem? Could hurricanes be Mother Nature’s way of driving the Earth through a high-pressure car wash?

Despite the devastation caused by major hurricanes, these may be part of an ecosystem cycle, much in the way the National Park Service describes forest fires. Necessary and beneficial, despite their destruction.

The Weather Channel describes some benefits of hurricanes.

Drought buster

Hurricanes can bring much needed moisture to drought stricken areas, replenishing lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Sure, there can be too much of a good thing. Mother Nature didn’t mandate that the Houston and South Florida be paved over. Roads, parking lots, buildings, all covering the landscape, preventing water sinking into the ground.


Hurricanes oxygenate the surface waters, breaking up bacteria and the red tide common along the Gulf Coast.

Heat balance

Hurricanes, due to their size and extension into the atmosphere are an efficient means of dissipating equatorial ocean heat. As warm water is sucked into the hurricane, cooler water from ocean depths replaces the warm water, balancing the temperature, leaving cooler water in its wake. This may weaken subsequent storms, as evidenced by Hurricane Jose, on the heels of Irma, petering out and not reaching US mainland. Without this heat balance, the poles would get colder and the tropics hotter. Hurricanes maintain the balance.

Island rejuvenation

Hurricanes, by sucking up sand and nutrients from the ocean floor, pushing this toward the barrier islands, builds them up, preventing natural erosion which would eventually cause these islands to sink into the ocean.

Johnny Appleseed

Hurricane winds carry seeds and spores hundreds of miles inland, far from where they normally fall. Strong winds remove weak or damaged trees and branches, much as forest fires do, a form of a haircut for plant life.

Even far left Mother Jones once published, “Five good things about a hurricane.” Yes -- the very same blog blaming Houston’s flooding on climate change. They mentioned the same benefits as listed above with the addition of cycling nutrient-rich seawater in the ocean depths to the surface, providing a smorgasbord for marine life, all residing close to or on the surface of the ocean.

After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, few are cheering this gift from Mother Nature. Hurricanes, which have been ravaging the southern coastal regions of the US for eons, originally deposited their storm surges and rains on marshland. Houston, New Orleans and Florida were swamps long before masses of people arrived, paving the ground, redirecting the flow of water and putting up homes and buildings along nearly every inch of shoreline.

The hurricanes aren’t more severe in 2017, but their effects certainly are, due to urbanization of the gulf and ocean coasts. Not Mother Nature’s fault or plan. And not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the risks and unintended consequences of developing the shoreline are understood.

This is not a new concept. Build homes in or close to the forest and expect that these homes will be threatened and eventually destroyed by forest fires. Live on the Malibu cliffs and don’t be surprised to watch your home crash onto the Pacific Coast Highway after a mudslide. Make a wild animal your house pet and don’t be shocked if someday the pet reverts to its roots and attacks you.

This in no way discounts the financial, physical and emotional toll that the recent hurricanes dealt to those unfortunate enough to be in their paths. But it’s wise to remember that hurricanes have been around long before humans and serve a greater purpose than politics and virtue signaling as the recent Hurricane Telethon demonstrated. 

Even Planet Jupiter has her own massive hurricane, possibly serving some purpose in Jupiter’s ecosystem.

Whether human activity is having any effect on the frequency and severity of hurricanes is a matter of debate. The benefits to Planet Earth of hurricanes, despite their destruction, are clear. Human activity may, however, correlate with hurricane damage as we turn coastal swamps into metropolises. And Mother Nature will continue to manage our planet ecosystem as she has for eternity, regardless of what the climate warriors think or say.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based physician and writer. Follow him on Facebook,  LinkedIn and Twitter.

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