Over Christmas time we saw a bomb cyclone dubbed ‘Winter Storm Elliot’ rip over the majority of the United States, missing only the southwest. This storm was particularly nasty, lasting from December 21st to the 26th. During this time, the storm caused $5.4 billion dollars in damages, created millions of power outages, and caused over 100 casualties. Shortly after, on December 26th, California began to see its own bomb cyclone as the atmospheric river called the ‘Pineapple Express’ started dumping heavy amounts of rain on the state. The U.S. National Weather Service called Winter Storm Elliot a “once-in-a generation” event which (with the California cyclone in mind) begs the question: should we still give storms these superlative titles?
In 2022 alone, there were 18 weather and climate related events in the U.S. that each caused over $1 billion dollars in damage. The U.S. saw hurricanes, wildfires, cyclones, drought, and 11 major storms — but this isn’t even a standout year. 2021 saw 20 of these billion-dollar events take place, which accounted for a total $145 billion in damages. And it’s not even just these two years that are outstanding. The average number of these weather events per year from 1980-2022 is 7.9, while in the past 5 years of 2018-2022, that average rose to 17.8. That these extreme weather events are happening over once a month makes one question whether they can still be called “historic” or “generational.”
Winter storms are worsening as well. In 2021 there was another winter storm, which the National Weather Service dubbed a “Historic Winter Storm and Arctic Outbreak”. This winter storm happened in February of 2021 when a polar vortex from the north pole dropped into Canada allowing polar winds to move southward into Texas and set daily cold weather records across the state. Although not as big as Winter Storm Elliot, this storm touched numerous other parts of the country and caused well over $1 billion worth of damage.
So why are these storms repeatedly getting “once-in-a-generation” billing? Perhaps such punchy headlines drive clicks. Certainly climate change has contributed to these storms breaking records year after year. And with urbanization and population growth in particularly vulnerable regions, a given storm has the potential to hit a lot more people and infrastructure, creating that much more economic and human impact.
But while these storms might be record-breaking one year, they could be the norm five or ten years down the line, making the “once-in-a-generation” moniker appear silly. The more people hear such a term, the more it becomes normalized. Not every storm gets a participation trophy — where storms stack up must be communicated with precision to ensure people truly understand how serious each one is.
As climate change worsens, communicators also ought to be mindful of how they draw that important link. One need not look far on Twitter after any bizarre weather to see calls of, “see, this is climate change!” But the link varies from storm to storm. Up until recently, scientists could not draw links to individual weather events at all — only saying that climate change makes extreme weather worse more broadly. Now, an emerging field called attribution science allows for rapid analyses finding that climate change made a given weather event x% worse. But in some cases, climate change has nothing to do with a particular event. While communicating climate change is important, jumping to conclusions without that attribution science analysis can lead to inaccuracies and distrust.
Sensationalizing extreme weather events doesn’t just create distrust, but can also leave people underprepared. Dubbing every historic storm “once in a generation” could result in a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario in which people become less prepared for these events because the last one wasn’t as bad as the headlines made it seem. If taken literally, these headlines can also make people less inclined to “prepare for the next one” if people think they have decades before the next storm occurs.
Extreme weather presents an excellent opportunity to discuss climate change and resilience strategies. But if people are turned off by misleading headlines, that conversation can’t get going. Taking steps to contextualize bad storms and properly express climate links may not provide clickbait, but it will give people a better understanding of the weather they experience which, in turn, leads to better preparedness.