IRA FLATOW, FLATOW:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Presidents of Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula are digging out this week after Hurricane Dean. Dean was the first major storm of the Atlantic hurricane season and what a storm it was, Category 5.
Now, such big storms are rare enough, but storms that make landfall that's Category 5 are rarer still. And we have to go back, way back to 1992 in Hurricane Andrew to find the last one of those. Hurricane Dean, therefore, takes his place as the ninth strongest storm ever measured in the Atlantic region. And if you look at the top 10 lists, six of those happened in the last decade.
Now, that statistic got us thinking, is that, you know, out of the ordinary, really? Is there really anything - something about the last decade, perhaps we're at the height of a period of heavy hurricane activity? Maybe scientists are making better measurements these days. Or could there be some other explanation for the rash of strong storms such - well, maybe global warming is the answer.
Here now to talk with us about Hurricane Dean and what scientists are saying about the hurricane-global warming connection is science author, blogger, and pundit, Chris Mooney. His new book is "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming." He's also the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine. And joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome back to the program.
Mr. CHRIS MOONEY (Washington Correspondent, Seed Magazine; Author, "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming"): It's good to be back.
FLATOW: Big storm, huh?
Mr. MOONEY: Absolutely, and terrifying storm. Intensifying right before landfall. It's the nastiest thing a hurricane can do.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So this one really makes the record books?
Mr. MOONEY: Oh, certainly for the Atlantic. You don't have that many Category 5 landfalls. You mentioned Andrew back in '92, and if you want to find another one, then you'd have to go back to, I believe, 1969 in Hurricane Camille off…
Mr. MOONEY: …the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
FLATOW: So even Katrina was not as big as this storm?
Mr. MOONEY: Not at landfall. No.
Mr. MOONEY: Katrina was more intense slightly over the Gulf of Mexico.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But there wasn't a big loss of life from Dean, was there?
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. And a lot of that has to do with a particular track. An incredibly powerful hurricane, but it didn't hit Jamaica full on the eye. It didn't go over Jamaica. And that was quite a blessing. And then when it did impact the Yucatan Peninsula, again, they are many parts of the peninsula where it could have hit where there's many more people.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Chris Mooney, author of "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming." Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
You know, last year's hurricane season was pretty tame, coming on the hills of that terrible 2005 season. We have only seen one big hurricane this season, you know, is this a portent of things to come, do you think, for the rest of this season?
Mr. MOONEY: Well, the forecast say we should expect three to five intense hurricanes this year. And intense hurricane defined as Category 3, 4 or 5. We've seen one of them. We have several months to go. And typically, the peak of the season is around mid-September.
FLATOW: Why is that?
FLATOW: Well, that's just sort of the climatology of Atlantic hurricanes and it varies in different parts of the world. In the southern hemisphere, you know, their summer is reversed and they got a lot of activity in, you know, February or March, so forth and so on. But that's traditionally how it's been. And so we definitely have to watch out still.
FLATOW: It takes a little longer for the waters to warm up…
Mr. MOONEY: Oh, yeah, yeah.
FLATOW: …towards the end of the season.
Mr. MOONEY: Mm-hmm. Exactly.
FLATOW: Is - the prediction changing last year. They had that prediction for a very strong year. It didn't happen. Have they modified the prediction that this year downwards a bit?
Mr. MOONEY: Oh, it's only the slightest revision downward. I believe it was something like from the NOAA…
Mr. MOONEY: …the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did a forecast. I think they just changed it from 13 to 17 storms to 13 to 16 storms. And that's not very much of a change.
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Mr. MOONEY: And we've had five so far. And the next one will be Felix.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You write about the "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming." One would think that the battle is just about over now. Is that basically where it is?
Mr. MOONEY: If you're talking about the science of global warming - the basic science, are humans causing global average temperatures to rise, it's a pretty strong consensus at this point that we are, that we're responsible, that we're in fact driving the trend. When you start to get into the impacts arena, how is global warming changing weather? How is it affecting hurricanes? Then, you still do have some really live scientific debates, and in fact some fraught intense, and sometimes even nasty scientific debates.
FLATOW: But we're not having a debate anymore as we used to about whether global warming is real or not?
Mr. MOONEY: No. Not really, not within the scientific community. I mean, I'm sure there's a lot of people out there in the United States and other parts of the world who remain skeptical because there's been a lot of misinformation and the issue has been so politicized for so long…
Mr. MOONEY: …that I don't think we're going to bring everyone along that quickly.
FLATOW: How do - what do scientists believe the way that global warming will affect hurricanes and the hurricane season?
Mr. MOONEY: Well, it's interesting. It's very complicated. This debate started out, especially after Katrina, as being about the intensification of hurricanes. And there's a basic thermodynamic theory, which suggests that if you store more heat in the sea surface…
Mr. MOONEY: …then the hurricanes are able to achieve a greater potential intensity. So you see a shift in terms of the total intensity achievable by hurricanes. And more recently, actually, now they're arguing over whether storm numbers are going up and down in the Atlantic. And there's lot of other things that I imagine that their going to picking apart such as the regional distributions of storms, whether season lengths are changing, and all of those things.
FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the numbers. Numbers for the last 100 years different, or the numbers for the last 50 or 25 or what?
Mr. MOONEY: Well, a scientific paper just came out from Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Peter Webster of Georgia Tech saying that they're have been quite an increase in the total number of storms in the Atlantic region, you now, looking at it over the last century. And then a skeptic, Chris Landsea from the National Hurricane Center, quickly came in and said, well, you know, I'm measuring techniques for these storms and not nearly as good and we're probably missing way more storms earlier in the century when we didn't have the same techniques for measuring and when we weren't flying planes into them, when we didn't have radar, when we didn't have satellite, all these things. It makes it really hard to make definitive statements because of these data gaps and inhomogeneities.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. When you were last on the program not too long ago, you talked with us about the shake up at the National Hurricane Center, where the center director was forced to resign. Have things settled down there a bit?
Mr. MOONEY: I don't think we've heard that last of this. I think it's simmering a bit, partly because we had this major intense Hurricane Dean - a scary hurricane. And everyone - the forecasters had to do their job, which they did wonderfully. And - so that, certainly, shifted attention away from the scandal that occurred when there weren't any storms out in the Atlantic.
Mr. MOONEY: But, you know, some lawmakers have suggested that Bill Proenza, the former director of the Hurricane Center, ought to go back to his old job, and I think that his lawyers have said that his ouster wasn't fair. And so, we're going to, I think, hear more about that.
Mr. MOONEY: Bill(ph) in New Jersey. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
BILL (Caller): Hey. How you doing today?
FLATOW: Hi, there.
BILL: I love your show.
FLATOW: Thank you.
BILL: I surf hurricane swells, okay? And I've been surfing hurricane swells for over 30 years. But one thing that we noticed is when the water is cold in the Pacific, the upper level winds don't tear the tops of hurricanes off in the Atlantic, so we end up getting a lot more swells. In 1995, we had close to 90 days of waves running head high to triple overhead in Jersey because of the fact that we had a lot more storms. But - so, what we look for is colder than normal water in the Pacific so we have bigger waves here. And my question is, is the global warming that we're having now cause - because 90 percent of the air pollution was knocked off from the Clean Air Act in 1971, and if it was caused by the cleaner air, does that show that the carbon in the air actually causes global cooling?
Mr. MOONEY: Well, let me just try to tackle that briefly. The Clean Air Act certainly did clean up some particles that actually thought to have a cooling effect namely sulfate aerosols. And so to some extent that may have unmasked the global warming trend caused by carbon dioxide. But that doesn't mean we should pollute more and global warming will go away.
Mr. MOONEY: I mean, that's a terrible idea.
FLATOW: What about the El Nino, La Nina connection?
Mr. MOONEY: And that was what was raised earlier. And in fact, one of the scientists that I talk about a lot in "Storm World," William Gray, was the first scientist to discover this relationship between El Nino and hurricane activity in the Atlantic. It turns out when we have an El Nino - and this is what happened in 2006, which is why the forecast were way off - Atlantic hurricane activity tends to be suppressed somewhat. It doesn't go away completely necessarily, but it's suppressed and hurricanes are more excited in the Pacific as a result. Now, some of the forecasters think we might be going into La Nina, that's the opposite of El Nino. And in that case you have cooler waters in the Pacific and you don't get the wind sheer that can tear apart the Atlantic hurricanes as much, and you often have really bad Atlantic hurricanes.
FLATOW: So - do we have a La Nina now?
Mr. MOONEY: We don't have an official La Nina, but some of the forecasts are expecting us to trend that way.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. When Katrina hit us, it hit us about the same time, a couple of years ago, right? About the same time in the season?
Mr. MOONEY: We're coming right up on the anniversary. Landfall was August 29th, and so Katrina was, actually, was our second Category 5 of 2005. We just had our first Category 5 of 2007. The statistics are really staggering. There have been seven Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic in the last five years and that's alarming. And, you know, it's surprising that people start raising questions about global warming in that context.
FLATOW: Seven in the last five years.
Mr. MOONEY: Yes, since 2003. We had Isabel that year. 2004 we had Ivan, terrifying storm, looked like it was coming at New Orleans, it swerved away. Then 2005 was kind of like the hurricane year that shall not be named, it was so terrible. I mean, we had Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma, all of them Category 5s. And now we have Dean. That's seven.
FLATOW: So we've just continued that trend of this decade?
Mr. MOONEY: It's been crazy in the Atlantic and it's more than a little worrisome.
FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, now this is something to be expected and - you know, there was that period years ago where there weren't very many hurricanes.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. The '70s and '80s were much quieter, and scientists are now really arguing over what was the reason. We heard the Clean Air Act mentioned before and how sulfate aerosols contribute to cooling and some scientists had argued that while the Atlantic was cool…
Mr. MOONEY: …because we had a slight cooling trend, and now, we've unmasked the global warming trend and here we have this active Atlantic. But the counterpoint is that there's a cycle…
Mr. MOONEY: …an ocean-driven cycle and that we're back in the active warm phase of it.
FLATOW: But the bad news was that, people 20 years ago, during the last cycle when it was common, we're taking that as the norm and we're building up all that coastline area.
Mr. MOONEY: Exactly. And one of the reasons - the chief reason we're probably so vulnerable to hurricanes, whatever global warming is doing is the fact we have so many people and property in harm's way, and this is a matter of consensus among scientists, actually. Fifty percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coastline, you're going to see escalating damage.
FLATOW: So - and we're also beginning to see some of the insurance companies are refusing to write homeowners insurance in some of these areas now.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, and that's not surprising. And I think that one of the policy implications of this debate is that while scientists are fighting over hurricanes and global warming, and new scientists coming in to the field, then we'll get better answers eventually. But in the meantime, from a policy perspective, coastal vulnerability is the key thing that has to be addressed. And it's not surprising that the insurance issue would respond to that.
FLATOW: You know, we talked two years ago the erosions of the coastlines. Has anything been done since then?
Mr. MOONEY: Well, you know, I mean, I think that's an ongoing problem.
Mr. MOONEY: Certainly, we have sea-level rise. For somewhere like New Orleans, we have sea-level rise plus subsidence.
Mr. MOONEY: And so all of these things are making places where people live more exposed. Meanwhile, if you add intense hurricanes on top of that and if they're intensifying, which, you know, the argument is that they're doing because of global warming, it all adds up and you start thinking, well, risks are probably only increasing.
FLATOW: Talking with Chris Mooney, author of "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming".
We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk more with Chris. Take your phone calls about this hurricane season. Stay with us. We'll be right back.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about hurricanes with my guest, Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine. Author of "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming," that's out this year from Harcourt. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones, lots of people want to talk about. Let's see if Chris' knowledge is going to be tested as it always with our guest.
Mr. MOONEY: Oh, good.
FLATOW: Let's go to David(ph) in Fort Lauderdale.
DAVID (Caller): Yes, my question relates to the storm that hit Brazil a couple of years ago. I gather that was somewhat unusual. I'd like your comments about hurricanes occurring in areas that they have not occurred in the past.
FLATOW: David, let me ask you first about Florida. You live in Fort Lauderdale, are you guys getting ready for a possible…
David: Yeah, we're all facing, sort of, the possibility of it being hit and it's always something that's on our minds this time of year.
FLATOW: All right. Let me see if I can get answer from Chris.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, it's a great question. In 2004, we had a storm called Cyclone Catarina and it struck the coast of Brazil at something like strong Category 1, weak Category 2. And this was really shocking because hurricanes are not known to occur in the South Atlantic. Again, records aren't good, so maybe you go back 50 years, you have another, or a hundred years, you have another Catarina.
But this was really eye opening and it does raise the question, one - a question that's been little studied is - will global warming change the distribution in the areas in which hurricanes occur. We actually had Cyclone Gonu this year in the Arabian Sea, which is the first recorded Category 5 in the Arabian Sea, and it made its way all the way to Oman and Iran. And, again, that's an area that's not used to experiencing tropical cyclones.
FLATOW: We had a tornado in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. Now, that was a first time in a hundred and thirteen years, I think. So…
Mr. MOONEY: With all these…
FLATOW: If want to talk of wacky weather.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. But there's always this issue. Our records are always, you know - get worse and worse the further you go back in time. Was there a Category 5 storm in the Arabian Sea 300 years ago? If there was…
Mr. MOONEY: …it wouldn't have been measured as such.
Mr. MOONEY: So there's always grounds for some skepticism.
FLATOW: And we have all that flooding that's going on and the droughts in the, you know, in the U.S. and…
Mr. MOONEY: And, you know, global warming is - there's always a quick desire to - whenever you have a sort of an anomalous weather event to say global warming, but in fact, it's always tricky to attribute that way. And in fact, scientists will tell you that global warming might affect a trend…
Mr. MOONEY: …it might affect the aggregate. But with any individual event, they really can't say anything definitive.
FLATOW: But policymakers are not good. They're not good at dealing with uncertainty.
Mr. MOONEY: Oh, absolutely not. And the hurricane global warming debate it's shot through with uncertainty, and yet with large policy implications with people living in harm's way. And so it's actually - it epitomizes this problem. How you take uncertain science and take what you know and actually use it profitably to find the right answers, and it's certainly always trying. In this case, the right answers are going to involve addressing coastal vulnerability now rather than waiting.
FLATOW: And they're all big money answers.
Mr. MOONEY: Oh, sure. Sure. And you know, and this is just indicative of the fact that scientific information is constantly being pulled into policy context. And that's only going to increase in the future because science is constantly changing our world. So policymakers have got to be better and better at grappling with uncertainty and understanding that scientific knowledge is tentative. But they still have to use it as best as they can.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phones, to John(ph) in Springfield, Virginia. Hi.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. How are you?
FLATOW: How are you?
JOHN: I have a question about Pacific hurricanes. Hurricane Flossie recently narrowly avoided hitting the big island of Hawaii. Some years ago, I was in Honolulu just after a typhoon had glanced off of Oahu. And my question is, are typhoons and hurricanes the same thing or different? And if they're different, how do they differ, or are we just calling typhoons hurricanes now?
Mr. MOONEY: They are the same thing, except it depends on which side you're on of the international dateline. It's really all there is to it.
FLATOW: As we…
JOHN: Well, but in Hawaii, they call them - it was Hurricane Flossie, but…
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. If you keep…
JOHN: …(unintelligible) ago, it was typhoon.
Mr. MOONEY: We had, in 2006, we had Hurricane Ioke that passed south of Hawaii, crossed the international dateline and became Super Typhoon Ioke. Hawaii - it'll still - it should be called a hurricane.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Where do you see the future of the politics of all this, Chris?
Mr. MOONEY: Well, you know, hurricanes became the new icon of global warming because of Katrina. And not surprisingly had Al Gore - the cover of "An Inconvenient Truth," the movie poster and the DVD shows a hurricane coming out of the smoke stack. And so, as a result, this topic is highly politicized, highly fought over, and science is misused on either side.
What - I think the answer should be from a political, from a policy point, is we should address global warming, right? And that's going to involve capping emissions. It's also going to involve adapting the changes that we can't prevent, because they're already unleashed. And you're going to need technological innovation, too, in terms of energy policy. But then, when it comes to hurricanes, the policy solution is significantly different. It involves addressing coastal vulnerability, improving evacuation planning, improving ability to forecast, ramping up building codes, and rethinking this insurance issue.
FLATOW: And no one's talking about, how do you stop hurricane anymore.
Mr. MOONEY: Well, that's because there have been all these sort of not really well accepted side, I don't know if I want to say crank ideas. But ideas that people have thrown out, like let's hit them with nuclear bombs. Chris Landsea at the National Hurricane Center likes to give talk in which he sort of outlines all the crazy ideas. Let's throw icebergs down into their path. Let's set up giant fence on the coastline, blow them back out to sea.
I mean, none of these works, right? A hurricane is massive. This is a storm capable of dissipating more power than the total world electricity generating capacity. And we, at this point in time at least, we cannot affect them.
FLATOW: I think I have time for one more call. Let's go to John(ph) in Syracuse, Utah. Hi, John.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. How are you doing? Hey, I just have a question. Is there anyway that they could take what we know about damages created by hurricanes now and go back historically from when we don't have accurate weather data and try to put together a picture of hurricane intensity based on that kind of information?
Mr. MOONEY: Hmm. I'm not sure that that's been tried or not. What I can tell you that there has been an attempt to sort of normalize damage by taking into account societal changes. And if you look at the 1926 Miami hurricane, a Category 4 hit Miami, and then you say that that storm happened today where the coastline - or Miami is dramatically more built up, a lot more people and property there, there's projections that that would be over $100 billion in damage. And that would be more than Katrina.
FLATOW: Well, Chris Mooney, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us.
Mr. MOONEY: Absolutely.
FLATOW: Good luck to you.
Mr. MOONEY: Thanks.
FLATOW: Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming."