Stormy Weather

A new book examines the relationship between hurricanes and climate change.

By David Zuckerman

In December of 2005, just months after Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall, science writer Chris Mooney found himself in his mother’s ruined New Orleans home. He wondered whether the city would be prepared for future hurricanes, especially if the storms could be made more destructive by unabated global warming. But will a warmer world really produce more frequent and intense hurricanes? 

That’s the question Mooney tries to answer in his new book, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. Mooney’s second book, Storm World explores the science behind the headlines, delving into past and current hurricane research.

Beginning with the first 19th-century efforts to discover the inner workings of these storms, Mooney surveys the scientific literature up to the present day. In doing so, he tracks the long-running controversy over the relationship between hurricanes and climate, one that would climax with the record-breaking hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005. Those years saw more major Atlantic-basin storms than had ever been recorded (28 in ’05, of which five were major hurricanes), including Ivan in 2004, which set records for endurance and ferocity. Land-falling storms in ’04 and ’05 wrought unprecedented damage on lives and property, culminating with Katrina in August of 2005. Though Katrina wasn’t the year’s strongest hurricane, the storm’s dramatic aftermath shook the nation and merged hurricanes and global warming in the public consciousness.

Weather during those years brought the hurricane-climate debate to the forefront. Activists and politicians got involved, goading scientists into dramatic pronouncements and inspiring a kind of personal rancor common to politics, but frowned on by scientific protocol. Administration-backed muzzling of scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) further stirred up the fracas when those policies were reported in the media.  

Mooney burrows deep into the controversy, examining both the data and the hype. Much of the book is a survey of the existing literature recast for a popular audience. As a translator, Mooney succeeds, distilling decades of research into an informative and fairly readable (if somewhat dry) explication.

The problem, however, is that the hurricane-climate debate has yet to be decisively resolved: Scientists remain uncertain as to how global warming will affect hurricanes, either in terms of intensity or frequency. This uncertainty poses problems for Mooney, leaving him without an end to steer toward. Storm World meanders back and forth between history, popular science, and politics, but never embraces one long enough to define Mooney’s purpose in writing the book.

Early chapters are especially ponderous, inundating the reader with scientific hurricane history that is largely tangential to the modern research at the core of the debate. Mooney also tries to enliven Storm World by attaching personalities to the science. He divides key players into opposing camps based on their methodological tendencies¾on one side the empirical observers who (usually) deny a link between climate and hurricanes; on the other, theoreticians who rely on computer-driven models and have hesitantly asserted a connection between warming and hurricanes. This distinction, though true and consistent, is fairly unenlightening and tends to feel clumsily grafted on for its own sake. And though he’s an excellent researcher, Mooney can be an awkward and long-winded writer.

Mooney is more adept at covering the recent past and examining the complex relationships between science, policy, media, and public perception. Chapters on the ’04 and ’05 hurricane seasons are lively and engaging, as are those covering the censorship scandals at NASA and NOAA. Mooney’s conclusion is also intriguing, and finds him writing with a clear purpose that is missing elsewhere. He offers analysis and suggestions both for scientists and policy makers, noting that while science has yet to conclude that hurricanes will grow more severe, we’d be safer preparing as though that were true. More provocatively, Mooney scolds scientists for failing to take ownership of the data they produce.

A fundamental lesson of the hurricane-climate debate, Mooney writes, is that “facts will get spun by advocates with opposed interests, attacked by politicians, and even suppressed by agenda-driven government agencies. Scientists can complain about this all they want, but they’d be better off taking actual measures to prevent and counter it.”

Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming
Harcourt $26.00



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'Hidden hurricanes' upsetting global warming theories?

Two studies published this summer contend that the number of hurricanes counted in the early 20th century is lower than the number that actually formed. The reason: Weather-recording technology has improved to the point that scientists can see tropical storms now that they never would have known about 100 years ago.

The findings are important because in recent years, several researchers have factored in historical data to show that hurricane seasons have become more active. They have theorized that the more active seasons are linked to global warming…

…Landsea’s theory is based on how frequently tropical storms hit land both before and after satellites came into use. Before 1966, 75 percent of known storms hit land. After satellites started noting mid-Atlantic storms, that dropped to 59 percent.

Landsea used statistical analysis to determine that the blind spot in the Atlantic Ocean caused scientists to miss about 2.2 more storms per year in the early part of the century.

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