Sunday, January 22, 2006

Science Gone Awry

Ordinarily, Science is a world-class, renowned journal of research. To have your work published in it is to have reached the big-time, so to speak.

However, last week, the editor of Science wrote in his column that Hurricanes such as Katrina shouldn't be called "natural" disasters because the damage they cause is the result of global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions.

He writes:
Contemporary science is making it difficult to sustain such distinctions, and perhaps it can do something to clarify matters. As Katrina and two other hurricanes crossed the warm Gulf of Mexico, we watched them gain dramatically in strength. Papers by Kerry Emanuel in Nature and by Peter Webster in this journal during the past year have shown that the average intensity of hurricanes has increased during the past 30 years as the oceans have gained heat from global warming. Emanuel's Web site at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( explains the thermodynamic aspects of the relationship. The winds around the low-pressure center (the eye of the hurricane) travel across the warm surface water in a circular pattern, picking up energy. As water molecules evaporate from the surface, they contribute their energy to the storm column as they condense to form droplets, becoming sensible heat. About a third of that energy powers the hurricane's wind engine.

We know with confidence what has made the Gulf and other oceans warmer than they had been before: the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human industrial activity, to which the United States has been a major contributor. That's a worldwide event, affecting all oceans. When Katrina hit the shore at an upgraded intensity, it encountered a wetland whose abuse had reduced its capacity to buffer the storm, and some defective levees gave way. Not only is the New Orleans damage not an act of God; it shouldn't even be called a "natural" disaster. These terms are excuses we use to let ourselves off the hook.

It turns out those articles Kennedy cites as proof of his thesis actually make the exact opposite point. The author of this article quotes from the sources Kennedy uses and shows just how they don't make Kennedy's points. In fact, from the website of one of the authors:
Q: Is global warming causing more hurricanes?
A: No. The global, annual frequency of tropical cyclones (the generic, meteorological term for the storm that is called a tropical storm or hurricane in the Atlantic region) is about 90, plus or minus 10. There is no indication whatsoever of a long-term
trend in this number.

I know that Global Warming is a closed subject for many people. This isn't about Global Warming. This is about the connection between Global Warming and an increase in hurricane frequency and intensity. People who are in a position to know about the link between those two topics say, quite specifically, that there is just no way to justifiably link the two at this point. For the editor of Science to do so in the pages of the journal for reasons that seem to be more about politics than science . . . it is beyond the pale. He sullies the reputation of a good research journal, and he ought to be ashamed.

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