BBC Hurricane Complaint

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By Paul Homewood

I submitted two complaints to the BBC last month, but never got the usual automatic acknowledgements, so I contacted the Executive Complaints Unit asking them to check if they had received them. They assured me they were.

But strangely a few days later I received responses to two other complaints from last year, which I had forgotten about. It made me wonder if they have a blacklist with my name on!

Anyway, one of the responses concerned this report in December 2021:

The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season has now officially ended, and it’s been the third most active on record.

Though the last month has seen little tropical storm activity, all the pre-determined names have been exhausted for the second year in a row.

There were 21 named tropical storms, including seven hurricanes, four of which were major hurricanes – where wind speeds were 111mph or greater.

This puts 2021 behind 2020 and 2005 – the first and second most active years.

As my post at the time noted, the 2021 hurricane season did not have the third highest number of hurricanes. Since 1851, there had been 50 other years with as many or more than the seven recorded this year in the Atlantic.

It was true that last year recorded the third highest number of tropical storms, a totally different thing. I therefore called on the BBC to issue a correction to this effect.

But I also pointed out that in recent years we are now able to spot more storms:

It is true that this year has had the third highest count of TROPICAL STORMS, a category which includes weaker storms as well as hurricanes. But this is largely due to changes in observing practices. Nowadays every single storm is monitored by satellite, whereas in the past many crossed the ocean unobserved.

Dr Neil Frank, who was Director of the US National Hurricane Center from 1974 to 1987 goes further, maintaining that many of the storms now named would not have been in his day.

He made two particular complaints about current methods last year:

1) Many named storms are actually winter storms, not tropical storms. He states that the first six tropical storms last year would not have been counted in his time.

2) Nowadays the NHC rushes to name a storm, simply based on wind speeds. His team would have waited until the central pressure dropped to confirm that it really was a tropical storm, and not just a thunderstorm. This often explains why named storms are often so short lasting now.

Indeed, the BBC itself published an article making this very point a few months earlier, written by the same reporter!

These changes in observing practices of course totally undermined the BBC claims of “third most active season”. So, I also asked them to add an explanatory note about this.

In their response, they made their usual attempt to fob me off and not actually answer the issues I had raised:

It is not the BBC making the claim you highlight, the source of that is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Noaa. Their report on the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season says:

This year was the third most active year on record in terms of named storms, it marks the sixth consecutive above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, and this was the first time on record that two consecutive hurricane seasons exhausted the list of 21 storm names.
The Editorial Guidelines recognise the BBC can report the views of credible and named individuals and organisations so long as such views are appropriately attributed. In the case of this article, readers would have understood it presented the informed views of the Noaa.

Regarding your second concern that the article you have raised concerns about not including some information included in your email and taken from an earlier item by the same journalist, I considered whether the omission of this information undermined the article and in my view it does not. 
It’s not possible for every individual article on a topic to include every element of a story that some readers may like included. It is the job of the BBC news editors to decide on the content of individual articles.

However, the article did include information about any impact of climate change, which you have raised in your email. It says:

What role does climate change have in tropical storms?

While scientists expect climate change to make huge storms worse, the latest report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested with “medium confidence” that the global frequency of tropical cyclone formation will decrease or remain unchanged with increasing global warming.

With warmer oceans you get more fuel for a tropical storm or hurricane to develop and, according to the IPCC, “it’s likely that the frequency of rapid intensification in tropical cyclones has increased globally over the last 40 years”.

The report goes on to conclude with “high confidence” that the proportion of intense tropical cyclones will increase on the global scale with increasing warming.
In other words, the tropical cyclones that form are likely to become more intense which, if they hit land, will bring more impacts.

Naturally I have resubmitted my complaint, which will trigger Stage 2 of the complaints process. Keeping it simple, I have said:

Your headline claims 2021 hurricane season was third most active.
As I have already pointed out, there have been 50 other years with as many or more hurricanes. The third most active claim refers to Tropical Storms, not Hurricanes, so this needs to be corrected.
As I also pointed out, many more tropical storms are observed these days thanks to satellites. In the past they still occurred but were not spotted. The BBC itself has acknowledged this fact in an earlier article by the same reporter.
It is therefore grossly misleading to claim “3rd most active” without explaining that many storms in the past were not recorded


November 25, 2022