November 16, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

From Katrina to Sandy: Searching online for links to climate change

This blog has been written by Alan Valdez (Open University) and Brigitte Nerlich

When Hurricane Sandy, aka Superstorm, aka Frankenstrom, hit the Eastern Seaboard on 29 October and in particular New York, it caused extensive damage and left at least 199 people dead. It has been widely reported to be “the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, as well as the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane in history, only surpassed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005”.  In the run-up to the storm hitting New York and in its aftermath many commentators began to speculate (yet again) as to whether this event would lead to a change in public perceptions about climate change, especially in the United States. The storm happened during the American elections which had been marked by what some called ‘climate silence’, a silence that had followed a lengthy period of ‘climate fatigue’. However, it also seems to have happened just when public attention to climate change related issues was picking up again (as well as media attention), probably because of various extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, wildfires and large-scale droughts.

When Sandy arrived comparisons were made with Hurricane Irene which had struck the same region the year before with relatively little damage. More importantly Sandy was compared with Hurricane Katrina which had hit Louisiana and New Orleans in 2005 and quickly became iconic for the destructive force that hurricanes, whether fuelled by climate change or not, could have. Whether Sandy leads to a major shift in public perceptions of climate change or not, it provides a good occasion for studying rises and falls in public interest in climate change as seen through the lens of internet searches around climate change. In order track such searches we have used Google Insight for Search.

Google Insights for Search analyses a portion of worldwide Google web searches from all Google domains to compute how many searches have been carried out for any given term relative to the total number of searches on Google over time. This analysis indicates the likelihood of a random user to search for a particular search term from a certain location at a certain time. Graphs with the search volume, indicating interest over time plotted on a scale from 0 to 100, are produced using data aggregated over millions of users worldwide. For this research it was used to assess how interest in web searches for the term ‘climate change’ fluctuated in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Figure 1 (below, on the right) shows that Hurricane Katrina cannot be compared to Hurricane Sandy when it comes to affecting public perceptions of climate change. Katrina took place in August 2005, and there is no noticeable spike in searches for climate change for that period. (Neither Hurricane had any evident effect on searches for ‘global warming’, a term that was in common use around 2005 but is gradually being replaced by climate change as the preferred term.)

Figure 1 also shows that, while Sandy can’t be compared to Katrina, it can be compared to ‘climategate’. The search volume for climate change during the first week of November 2012, right after Sandy, is second only to search volume during climategate. (86% of the search volume at peak interest in climategate. There is no spike above 64% in the records besides those two.)

Given that climategate was used to argue by some that climate change was a hoax and that climate change was not real, we traced searches for these two options. As one can see figure 2 and figure 3, showing searches for ‘climate change hoax’ (in red) and ‘climate change real’ (in blue), exhibit some interesting trends. It seems that nobody was carrying out searches about climate change as reality or hoax previous to 2007.  At the time that Katrina struck climate change was, it seems, regarded as a given; at least it was not openly contested on a large scale and in public arenas, such as newspapers, blogs and so on. Things changed after 2007, when a split began to open up between, very crudely speaking, climate change being portrayed as a hoax by some and being real (and dangerous) by others (although it should be stressed that many more nuanced positions on climate change can be and are being adopted, which are more difficult to measure using an instrument like Google Insights for Search).  This split is quite noticeable at the time that Sandy struck New York. That is to say, when we look at searches for ‘climate change hoax’ we only see two big spikes: One for climategate and one for Sandy. The one for Sandy is 38% of the one for climategate. Searches for ‘climate change real’ follow a similar pattern, but with an interesting difference. There are two peaks, and one is for climategate and the other for Sandy as in the previous case, but the one for climategate is smaller. Search interest regarding the reality of climate change is actually higher after Sandy than at the height of climategate (77% search volume relative to the latest November figures). This may indicate changes in public perceptions are on the way.

On the other hand, figure 4 (below, on the right), in which hoax and reality search volumes are seen side to side, paint a slightly different picture regarding the state of the debate. At the height of climategate, the volume for searches on ‘real’ climate change was 20% of that for ‘hoax’ climate change. Figures are not as lopsided after Sandy, but ‘real’ searches are still falling behind ‘hoax’ searches (68% of the search volume). This might indicate that things may swing back to the relatively polarised debate that emerged after 2007.

Studying public interest in, perceptions of and attitudes to climate change is complex, because the issues themselves are complex, especially in the context of extreme weather events. Hence, this study can only be a small contribution to an ever-growing field. However, we think that the findings are indicative of certain dilemmas that have come to characterise climate change debates and that need further study.


This blog is the latest in a series of blogs using Google Insights for Search, one on the shift from (verbal) carbon compounds to energy compounds and one on why turning up the media volume on climate change may turn people off. This research is linked to a project funded by the ESRC/ORA fund.

Image Wikimedia Commons: Governor Andrew M. Cuomo toured the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (formerly known as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel) on Oct. 30, 2012, with MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph J. Lhota and Jim Ferrara, President of MTA Bridges and Tunnels. The tunnel flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin.

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics