Ira Flatow on Science: More Hurricanes Coming?

Hurricane Katrina is already being called one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history — and more hurricanes may be on the way to the Gulf Coast. Alex Chadwick talks with Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday, about what Americans can expect for the rest of the hurricane season.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We're back with DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

More hurricanes may be on the way, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That's the government's hurricane forecasting agency. NOAA has modified its original predictions for hurricanes this season. It says even more hurricanes than originally predicted are likely. With us to explain this forecast for the season is Ira Flatow, the host of NPR's "Science Friday" and regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Ira, welcome back. We're still trying to digest and comprehend the extent of the disaster from Katrina. What about these further warnings?

IRA FLATOW (Host, "Science Friday"): Well, if last year's hurricane season is any predictor and if the trend we are in continues, we should be seeing a lot more tropical storms this year and some very strong hurricanes. That's what NOAA is saying. Last year, remember, Florida was hit with those four hurricanes almost back to back?

CHADWICK: Yeah.

FLATOW: Well, this season NOAA says we should expect nine to 11 hurricanes with five to seven of them becoming major hurricanes. We've already had a record-setting seven tropical storms during June and July, so we can expect at least two or three more major hurricanes.

CHADWICK: I'll say that just before you and I spoke, we looked at the Web site for NOAA, and there is a tropical storm forming out there, tropical storm Lee, but it's not going toward the Gulf Coast area, thankfully.

FLATOW: No, it's heading up into the North Atlantic, but it does come from off of Africa, where these major storms are spawned and head in our direction.

CHADWICK: OK. Why the increase in hurricane activity?

FLATOW: Well, there are a couple of factors here. One--and this is really interesting. There appears to be a regular multidecade cycle of hurricane activity where for a period of, say, 25 to 30 years they're very, very intense, and that's followed by a few decades where you have a very few. So during the active period--and we are in one now--which scientists say started around 1995--you have very warm water coupled with low atmospheric winds. Now the water in the Gulf of Mexico is about 90 degrees, above 90 degrees in some places. The Atlantic Ocean water is well above normal. And we know that hurricanes feed off warm water, but you need more than just the warm water. When the winds are not very strong, they do not disrupt the formation of the hurricane. When you have an El Nino--actually, El Ninos prevent the hurricanes, because they have strong winds. We are not in an El Nino season, but we are currently in a period where the winds are not that strong. So you have the warm water and not strong winds to disrupt the hurricane.

CHADWICK: Ira, I think I've already seen in some places some cautions or people saying this is worse than a regular hurricane and it demonstrates that global warming is having an effect.

FLATOW: There is the expectation that global warming may be making these hurricanes into really big killers. Dr. Kerry Emanuel of MIT just published a paper in Nature in which he analyzed the records of the past 50 years, and he found that the largest wind speeds of hurricanes have increased by 50 percent during the last five decades. And at the same time, the average water temperature has increased also. So you add the effects of global warning to the fact that we are now in that 25-to-30-years intense hurricane cycle and you've got a recipe for a period of giant powerful hurricanes.

CHADWICK: Thank you for that news, I guess, Ira. It doesn't sound very happy, but there you are.

FLATOW: Don't shoot the messenger.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of NPR's "Science Friday," regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY. Bye, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY returns in just a moment.

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