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Rear Window

"Using statistics," my teacher used to say, "is like driving a car down a road with the windshield blacked out, guided only by your rear-view mirror." The notion of the future as a probability is at the heart of the Washington Post's survey of natural disasters. Typhoon Haiyan was not unique. It was individually unpredictable, but it was statistically just what one would have expected: "33 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones on record have occurred in southern or southeastern Asia – due to a confluence of meteorology, geography, population density, poverty and government."

The deadliest tropical cyclone in recorded history is largely considered to be the Bhola Cyclone that struck Bangladesh on November 12, 1970, claiming between 300,000 and 500,000 lives. Six of the top ten deadliest tropical cyclones have occurred in Bangladesh, and the vast majority of the top 35 have occurred in the countries that lie along the Bay of Bengal.

The older readers might still remember the Bangladesh typhoon because the following year it spawned the Concert for Bangladesh, at which George Harrison performed "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The other catastrophes you may have forgotten.


1.Great Bhola Cyclone, Bangladesh1970 (Nov 12)Bay of Bengal300,000 - 500,000
2.Hooghly River Cyclone, India and Bangladesh1737Bay of Bengal300,000
3.Haiphong Typhoon, Vietnam1881West Pacific300,000
4.Coringa, India1839Bay of Bengal300,000
5.Backerganj Cyclone, Bangladesh1584Bay of Bengal200,000
6.Great Backerganj Cyclone, Bangladesh1876Bay of Bengal200,000
7.Chittagong, Bangladesh1897Bay of Bengal175,000
8.Super Typhoon Nina, China1975 (Aug 5)West Pacific171,000
9.Cyclone 02B, Bangladesh1991 (May 5)Bay of Bengal138,866
10.Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar2008 (May 3)Bay of Bengal138,366

Wikipedia has a list of record-breaking typhoon statistics.  It may surprise some to learn that the biggest recorded storm surge in history was 1899's Cyclone Mahina in Bathurst Bay, Queensland Australia, killing 400 people -- a lot considering the sparse population of the area. "A storm surge, variously reported as either 13 meters or 48 feet high, swept across Princess Charlotte Bay then inland for about 5 kilometers, destroying anything that was left of the Bathurst Bay pearling fleet along with the settlement. Eyewitness Constable J. M. Kenny reported that a 48 ft (14.6 m) storm surge swept over their camp at Barrow Point atop a 40 ft (12 m) high ridge and reached 3 miles (5 km) inland, the largest storm surge ever recorded."

The problem with statistics is there's always an outlier.

The dates of the disasters are particularly revealing because some happened long before any "carbon economy" was in evidence or the term even invented. Recent calls to combat "climate change" assume that bureaucrats know how the weather works.  Considering how much of our received wisdom is contrary to the evidence in the rear-view mirror, we might conclude that we are still without a reliable predictive model; and without such a model, what tinkering we embark upon may make things worse, rather than better. You only operate on a patient when you can see and not before.

How do people prepare for an unknown future?

The classic response of a decision-maker facing irreducible uncertainty has been to form a reserve. Reserves also go by the name of "savings" or "stockpiles" or design margins. They are intentional surpluses prepared against an unpredictable future. We all know, or used to know, the Biblical advice on risk management. "Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up."