Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hurricanes and Global Warming

The horrible news coming out of New Orleans reminds us that the damage done by natural disasters depends in large part on the works of men. Kevin Drum raises important questions about whether the federal response to Katrina has been hampered because the Bush administration has put political hacks in charge of FEMA. Eric Holdeman argues that FEMA has been "systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security." Josh Marshall provides lengthy exerpts from a New Orleans Times-Picayune article describing federal budget cuts in funds for levee maintenance and improvement.

Another aspect of this story that should not be ignored is the possibility that hurricanes are becoming more intense because of global climate change. Time magazine has a piece on how hurricane intensity, as measured by wind speed, has gotten worse over the last 50 years, and how increased ocean temperatures could be the culprit. According to a Belfast Telegraph report, no less an authority than "Sir David King, the British Government's chief scientific adviser, has warned that global warming may be responsible for the devastation reaped by Hurricane Katrina."

According to King:
The increased intensity of hurricanes is associated with global warming . . . We have known since 1987 the intensity of hurricanes is related to surface sea temperature and we know that, over the last 15 to 20 years, surface sea temperatures in these regions have increased by half a degree centigrade. So it is easy to conclude that the increased intensity of hurricanes is associated with global warming.

The same article notes that other scientific experts disagree with this assessment, including William Gray, a Colorado State University meteorologist "who is considered one of the fathers of modern tropical cyclone science." Gray believes that the increase in hurricane intensity is part of a natural cycle.

Citizen Cain doesn't know who is right about the causes of the current trend in increasing hurricane intensity. But it certainly is the case that global climate change models predict greater hurricane strength as a result of higher ocean temperatures. We would be foolish not to consider the possibility that storms will continue to worsen as we continue to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and warm the oceans.