Hurricane Erika, Evidence of Climate Change, and Reaching Agreement, Part 1

It’s been a decade since a major hurricane has made landfall in the United States.  Ten years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the most intense hurricane season on record, there was talk of a “new normal.”  We can remember that this was the beginning.  Hurricanes would be larger, more powerful, more frequent and more damaging.  Those of us who saw and experienced that year and the year before, understandably concluded that something was going on and that climate change must have been the reason.

Since then, we have had Hurricane Ike (2008, Cat 2)), Irene (2011, Cat 1), and Sandy (2012, Cat 1).  There is evidence to suggest that the latter two were not hurricanes when they made landfall.  Each, however, caused damage in their own ways.  Ike brought fierce winds which brought winds and storm surge that affected the US oil and energy supply.  Irene cruised up the Eastern seaboard and brought deadly flooding.  Sandy brought a massive storm surge that caused destruction in the most densely populated urban area in the US.  Each different.

But make no mistake, this has been an historic drought.  The lack of US landfalls is the longest seen since records began in 1851.  Is this absence itself evidence of lack of climate change?

The answer is “no.” In fact, it seems fairly obvious that something changing is evidence of change.  But what happened with this is that science mixed with politics.  Public Relations took a lead over science.  And the political beings who have taken positions just took things a bit too far.  Scientists are comfortable with being wrong.  Politicians are not.

Climate Change and Hurricanes

This starts with how hurricanes form.  In a massive oversimplication, a hurricane forms over warm equatorial water.  Very warm – water needs to be around 80 degrees.  As a low pressure system forms, winds blow in from the surrounding high pressure areas, get moisture from the warm ocean, and build energy and moisture.

Climate change means warmer ocean.  Warmer ocean means more and more powerful hurricanes.  A simple message that makes all the sense in the world.  But it is not that simple, because there are three mortal enemies to a hurricane: (1) cold water (which is why California doesn’t get regularly hit with them); (2) land (even an island like Hispaniola can disorganize a tropical storm, as happened yesterday with Erika) and (3) wind shear.

Wind shear is simple.  IT’s a change in speed of wind at different levels. At 5,000 feet, the wind may be coming from the southeast at 15 mph.  At 30,000 feet the wind may be blowing at 30 mph. But if the wind at 30,000 feet is blowing at 60 mph, then there is a pretty massive wind shear.  Considering that hurricanes get up to in excess of 40,000 feet, it is easy to picture the upper winds ripping the tops off of hurricanes before they begin.  A storm system cannot organize when the upper winds are chopping the tops off.

Global Warming Theory Predicted Increased Wind Shear

As temperatures increase, winds increase.  And in 2007, modeling suggested that wind shear would increase due to global warming.  The paper suggested that increased wind shear may cancel out the effect of warming water.

Obviously, this created a problem.  Not a scientific problem, but a public relations problem.  A decade ago, there were pronouncements that hurricanes would be larger and more powerful and more destructive due to climate change. And there was certainly evidence and common sense to support it.  On the other hand, there is evidence to support the allegation that climate change has increased wind shear, which has caused fewer and less destructive hurricanes.

The scientific process is trying to work out the interrelationship.  But this is not about science.  Tropical Storm Erika had some of the warmest water on record in its path.  But what pretty much formed a wall along the Eastern Seaboard was a wall of 50 mph wind shear.  And it seems well within the realm of probability that climate change contributed to both the warm water and the wind shear.

So Where is the Conflict?

Climate conflict goes back a long way.  The conflict is not scientific, but is related to public policy.  Global, national and even local climate has much to do with politics.  If there is a threat of more hurricanes coming ashore in Miami, then it obviously creates scenarios for government intervention and headaches.  Government SHOULD be paying attention to it.  But what should be done?

The more disastrous the consequences, the more the need for action.  If climate change will cause more destruction, more frequently and over wider areas, then government action (which is political action) becomes more important.  On the other hand, if climate change means fewer hurricanes, with less damage then political action becomes less necessary.

The conflict regards the proposed solutions, and not the underlying science. The conflict regards what are the probable effects of climate change.  From that, qualitative arguments are being made.  Policy advocates are moving into the realm of climate scientists.  Climate scientists are moving into the realm of policy advocacy. It has resulted in climate science and climate politics being adjuncts for each other.

Is there anything the sides agree upon?  As surprising as it may be, there is plenty that the sides can agree upon.  Set aside ego and collate the evidence.  Evidence exists on all sides.  In the next parts, I will be showing that there is no such thing as “the evidence.”  There is only “evidence,” it shows lots of things, and that anybody is qualified to make subjective determinations of what course of action to take.  I will also be discussing the different kinds of evidence available, including computer model evidence.  I will also provide an example from NASA’s Apollo program of how disagreements can be turned to agreement when a clear goal is established.

There is much that can be agreed upon.  There is much that is agreed upon.  Let us focus on this.


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