Will there be a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico this weekend? The Canadian computer model thinks so. Here’s its forecast for Saturday morning:
That green-and-blue area northeast of the Yucatan represents a tropical low-pressure system. But Adam Moyer at The Storm Track isn’t buying it: “I don’t see this scenario playing out because there is nothing out there right now for a storm to develop from.” Mark Sudduth at HurricaneTrack (which, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to have permalinks enabled) agrees: “It is interesting to watch a few of the global computer models since some of them are indicating development in the Caribbean. Right now, there are no signs of that taking place and the NHC is not concerned about any specific areas for the time being.”
Getting back to The Storm Track, Moyer notes in the same post that, contrary to my previous alarmism, the sea-surface temperatures in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico are actually now lower than what they were last year. (About that previous post… Charles Fenwick took me to task somewhat, noting that “SSTs can be volatile on a daily basis” and therefore “it is more useful to look at at a longer term average and compare it to a long term norm” — a strategy which produces a less alarming result. Fenwick’s visual evidence of my error was not entirely accurate, but his overall point was sound.)
Now then, on to some more political hurricane-related topics… specifically, for starters, global warming. We’ve already had a brief brush fire on that topic today, so why not start an all-out flame war? :)
There is, of course, a ongoing rollicking debate about global warming… and a second ongoing rollicking debate about the debate itself, questioning whether the debate over global warming’s existence is really a debate at all, or just something “cooked up in Texas” (to borrow a phrase), a faux-debate sponsored by the oil companies and the Republicans to advance Chimpy W. HitlerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Evil Hegemonic Halliburtonization of Mother Earth.
Even as a global-warming believer, I am disinclined to buy into the “it’s all a conspiracy” argument. I’m not unwilling to consider it (provided the conspiracy net isn’t cast too wide; i.e., you have to acknowledge that, even if the debate is a fake debate, most of the participants in said faux-debate truly believe it’s a real debate), but at this point I’d have to say the “faux-debate” theory is unsupported by the evidence I’ve seen. It seems to me that there are some legitimate, respected scientists (like, for example, the most respected hurricane climatologist in the country) who are still skeptical of the degree to which human activity is causing global warming.
But even if I’m wrong about that — even if the main global warming debate is totally settled, even if the “global warming skeptics” really are just a merry band of liars, idiots and oil executives — I think it is definitely true that the link between global warming and recent increased hurricane activity is absolutely and inarguably the subject of ongoing, legitimate debate. But don’t listen to me; listen to the SciGuy:
Based upon my discussions with hurricane researchers — some of which have been at length — there is no general consensus on this question. Yes, more and stronger hurricanes tend to form when sea surface temperatures are warmer, but there are many more ingredients that go into a powerful hurricane, not all of which would be strengthened by a warmer Earth.
Even Kerry Emanuel, probably the most prominent advocate of a link between climate change and hurricanes, has acknowledged no scientific consensus has emerged on this issue. (He believes, however, that one will in a couple of years as forecasters like Mayfield become more comfortable with the science.)
But the bottom line is that the science on this subject simply isn’t settled yet. The hurricane record is poor for all but the last 30 years, and only then is it truly reliable in the Atlantic basin, where only about 10 percent of the world’s storms form. Moreover, scientists can’t even describe the physics of a strengthening hurricane with confidence.
I was wrong. Dead wrong.
Heading into this week’s conference on hurricanes and climate change I believed scientific thinking was moving toward embracing the belief that global warming had begun to induce hurricanes to grow slightly more intense than in the past, and possibly increase their numbers. …
But a funny thing happened at the workshop today. A number of speakers gave talks, and most were dismissive of any upward trend in hurricane intensities and numbers during recent decades due to climate change. Among the facts I gleaned today:
• One researcher applied present greenhouse levels to models of storm activity between 1958 and 1970. Over most of the hurricane basins in the world, with artificially warmer seas than today, he actually found a reduction in activity. (The Atlantic basin increased a moderate 0.5 percent).
• Another researcher modeled the effects of a 5-degree Fahrenheit increase in SSTs on storm activity on the Atlantic basin. In comparison to the period 1961 to 1990, the modeled era of 2071 to 2100 produced a slightly decreased number of tropical storms and hurricanes.
• A third researcher presented a really nice dissection of Emanuel’s work and then reviewed the effect of rising SSTs on the Northwestern Pacific Ocean during recent decades. The conclusion? Changes in storm activity were not at all tied to global warming.
These aren’t global warming skeptics, folks. The people attending and presenting at this conference are among the “heads of state” in the field of climate and its effect on hurricanes.
The general consensus I have gleaned is that increasing SSTs will have some effect on hurricanes. But temperatures in the upper atmosphere are also likely to increase, so there may be no net increase in the “convective fuel” that hurricanes thrive upon. Wind shear may also increase as a result of global change, which also dampens their ability to form and remain organized.
A settled debate? Hardly.
That said, what spurred me to bring up global warming today is this post by Stu Ostro, which deals more broadly with the issue of global warming, and with which I agree:
I used to vehemently argue to anyone at TWC who would listen that any weather extremes we were seeing or have ever observed were nothing more than a manifestation of natural variability. I preached about the overuse of words such as “unusual” in describing things. … I’m not someone prone to being reactionary when “unusual” weather occurs and I don’t have a track record of being a “global warming fanatic” … However, bit by bit, as someone who has also professionally observed the weather — surface observations, upper air observations and charts, imagery, etc. — for many many years, I simply began seeing too many eyebrow-raising things, too many things that made me go hmmm, too many things that were consistent with what one would expect in warmed world. …
The atmosphere is not in the same state as it was a decade ago. … There’s a piece of me that has a cynical streak and as I get older I seem to be getting more jaded at least about some things, but I also try to be open-minded. And finally it became impossible to deny to myself that something, as I’ve put it previously, just ain’t right.
An email group I’m part of recently contained a message referring to “zealots who interpret each drop of rain as a result of anthropogenic global warming.” I don’t know whether the person even knows about The Weather Channel blog much less has read my posts about global warming possibly playing a role in the extreme rainfall and flooding in the Northeast last month and in October. (And as I write this today, there’s more heavy rain and flooding there as a result of a trough aloft and an extratropical coastal low that is anomalously strong for early June … along with quite a strong and hot ridge to its west …)
It did give me pause, though. I hope nobody out there is misinterpreting what I’ve been saying. Rest assured, I’ll be the first to maintain that there would still be plenty of extremes including rainfall without global warming! But the changing climate is affecting the atmosphere and oceans, and it is logical to expect that to be playing out in at least some ways at some times via particular weather situations. It’s up to us humans to try and figure out exactly how. …
Ultimately the notion that humans can’t possibly be having this much influence is [whatever the word would be for the opposite of anthropocentric]. I know that can be tough to accept: that we mere mortals could have such an effect. However, the CO2 data is there, with humans being the primary contributor to the current sharp increases; the link between greenhouse gases and the Earth’s temperature is well-established scientifically; and non-greenhouse-gas causes of climate change can’t account for the majority of what’s going on.
Yes, in the past there have been huge swings in climate produced by natural causes, even changes that are very substantial and very quick by climatic standards. But that’s what’s most disconcerting about the present situation: that the climate can change on a dime, and it can be very difficult to adapt to.
Eventually, there will indeed be other forces which overwhelm any human-induced changes, however those time scales will be much longer. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until the sun becomes a red giant.
I’m not the first to use a medical analogy along the lines of this: if x-rays and blood tests point to very strong evidence of something but the doctor can’t be 100% sure that left untreated your future prognosis is grim, are you going to wait until the disease progresses to the point that your health is already rapidly declining?
(But Amen, too, to the guy who complained about “zealots who interpret each drop of rain as a result of anthropogenic global warming.” People like that drive me nuts. They give legitimate global-warming advocacy a bad name, making all the actually well-informed, non-ignorant believers in anthropogenic climate change look bad.)
Global warming isn’t the only hurricane-related topic with political overtones that has been discussed recently on The Weather Channel Blog. Yesterday, TWC’s Mike Bettes discussed the Texas government’s plans to hopefully solve some of the problems that occurred during the evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita last September:
If you recall Hurricane Rita last year, the evacuation of Southeast Texas was a nightmare. Millions fled as Rita took aim. Forty-nine people died evacuating, whereas only seven people died as a result of the storm. One of the many reasons is that too many people evacuated unnecessarily causing massive backups that the roadways just couldn’t handle. So Tex Dot has developed a new plan to hold ‘em back this year. They are asking residents to evacuate only when ordered to. This in itself should help prevent a lot of congestion. They have also implemented a few other important changes. Contra flow will be enacted earlier to allow more people to head outbound. They are setting up extra fuel stations along evacuation routes. Last year the back-ups were so long, vehicles were running out of gas before they got to their destination. When my crew and I were covering Rita last year, it took us eight hours to get from Clute to Port Arthur..it’s a trip that would usually take two. They are also setting up comfort stations to hand out water and ice. Last summer, it was 100 degrees during evacuation and people were literally dying of heat stroke. We handed out almost all of our water to our neighbors stuck on the highway with us. All of these changes will hopefully prevent what happened last year. I think it’s a step in the right direction.
I boldfaced the sentence about asking people to stay put unless ordered to leave, because that was by far the biggest problem with Rita — and it’s the polar opposite of what usually happens, when not enough people evacuate. In Rita, too many people evacuated — specifically, those in non-coastal and non-low-lying areas, disobeying the cardinal rule “run from the water, hide from the wind” — because they were so (understandably) frightened after seeing Katrina’s devastation on TV.
Whether people will heed official requests/orders to “stay put” remains to be seen, but color me skeptical. If people are frightened, they will evacuate — and, generally speaking, that is a good impulse to encourage! But it does create problems in places like Houston. This is really a vexing issue, because it’s impossible to plan for an orderly evacuation of an entire mega-metropolis if everyone is leaving simultaneously, but at the same time, you can’t force people to stay, nor can you really blame folks for wanting to get out, even if they do live on a hill 30 miles inland. If I was living on that hill, and a Category 5 was coming my way, I’d probably get out, too! The only difference is, I’d try to leave about 24 hours before the evacuation is ordered (as I urged New Orleanians to do on the Friday night before Katrina).
I want to say one thing about this evacuation issue, though. An evacuation is a “nightmare” when people are running out of gas, dying of heat stroke on the roads, getting stuck on the highway in the storm (a la Opal), etc. An evacuation is not a “nightmare” or a “disaster” merely because people are stuck in traffic for a long time. That’s an inevitable fact of life during mass evacuations, and it’s not something politicians should be pressured to somehow magically “fix” — because they can’t. Oh, they should try to improve things as much as possible, with contraflow and such. But it’s never going to be anything except slow when crunch time comes. Yet you hear such complaints often: people say that a given evacuation was a “debacle” because they were on the highway for six hours. HELLO!!! When the entire city of Houston is on the highway at the same time, traffic is going to be very, very slow. What matters is: 1) that you are able to get to your destination safely and without interruption; and 2) that the evacuation occurs in a timely enough fashion that you get there well before the storm hits. There is no #3, no requirement that you get there quickly. That is an utterly unrealistic expectation.
Alas, Bettes feeds into this national neurosis when he notes: “it took us eight hours to get from Clute to Port Arthur..it’s a trip that would usually take two.” Well, duh. Several million people were trying to simultaneously drive in the same exact direction. That’s a helluva rush hour. It’s gonna be slow. I’m sorry, I know it sucks, but deal with it. Spending a day of your life in traffic is infinitely better than dying in a hurricane. Mere slow traffic is not what you should be upset about. If people are dying, if people are running out of gas, if traffic is not just slow but stopped entirely, if the evacuation orders came so late that you’re stuck on the highway as the winds and rain and begin — be upset about that. But not mere slowness. As long as people get where they’re going safely and before the storm, the evacuation is not a “disaster” or a “debacle” or a “nightmare.”
But with regard to those things which were disastrous and nightmarish about the Rita evacuation, it sounds like the authorities are taking some positive steps, and that’s good. Hopefully next time around it will be a little bit smoother. It will not be smooth — it will never be smooth — and it certainly won’t be fast. But hopefully it will be less of a true “nightmare.”
Dr. Jeff Masters has more on the topic of government response to last year’s hurricanes. But he’s talking Katrina. It should be noted that Dr. Masters has a good deal of credibility in this area, as he was sounding the alarm on Hurricane Katrina’s threat to New Orleans even before I was. He was flabbergasted than a mandatory evacuation wasn’t ordered Friday night. Anyway, Masters writes:
Q. In the wake of last year’s Hurricane Katrina, you were pointed in your remarks about the Bush administration’s response to the storm. Taking into consideration all of the information about that response that has been released since then, has your opinion changed?
A. My criticism of the Bush Administration was primarily aimed at false comments made about the flooding of New Orleans being an unexpected disaster. This was a valid criticism, because this disaster has been expected by virtually everyone who studies hurricanes. I wasn’t critical of the bungled response to the disaster, but certainly could have been. I also made a more general criticism of our political system, asking how it is that a nation as wealthy as ours was not able to evacuate the thousands of poor people who had no transportation of their own. I blamed this on the political process in our country where the wealth of one’s campaign contributors is our politicians’ primary concern, not the welfare of the poor in New Orleans. How is that Mexico, a much poorer country than our own, suffered only four deaths from Hurricane Wilma last year? Recall that Wilma hit the most heavily populated tourist area of Mexico as a Category 4 hurricane, and sat over Cancun for three days. And Hurricane Emily hit Mexico twice, first as a Category 4 at Cozumel, then as a Category 3 near Texas. But no one died in Emily! The difference is that the government of Mexico made a determined effort to evacuate those at risk, and provided transportation. In the U.S., a totally inadequate effort was made–in part, because the people affected were poor and of little concern to the politicians. The City of New Orleans was primarily responsible for coming up with a hurricane evacuation plan, with help from both the state and federal governments. All three branches of govenment failed this responsibility. In fact, a repeat of Katrina is entirely possible–newly re-elected Mayor Nagin has not yet come up with a workable plan to get those without transportation out of New Orleans for the next hurricane. How is it he got re-elected? According to a May 22 article on cnn.com, the bus drivers Nagin wants to use have not yet signed on, and the city has too few buses. The state and federal government are supposed to help out, but this hasn’t happened yet. There are plans to get help from Amtrak and the commercial airlines, but again, there is nothing official. Is it asking too much for the federal government to step in and provide National Guard troops to transport people out? Mexico was able to get its citizens out of harm’s way, why can’t we? We need to take a hard look at our system of goverment in this country and answer that question. I think we need to move towards more public financing of elections and other reform measures such as Instant Runoff Voting to help reduce the influence of money on politics.
Q. It was recently suggested FEMA should be dismantled, to be replaced by a new and larger government disaster-response agency. Do you think such an agency would do a better job of assisting the victims of hurricanes, and if not, what would you advise lawmakers on Capitol Hill?
A. FEMA has not done well as a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), since that agency has given priority to anti-terrorism programs. FEMA and DHS are bureaucratically incompatible. For example, FEMA was using hurricane forecasts from NHC in the days leading up to Katrina, while DHS was using forecasts provided by Accuweather! The two sets of forecasts were considerably different, so the two agencies were never on the same page, even before the disaster. It makes sense to try putting FEMA back on its own again. However, this will not magically solve the agency’s problems–remember that FEMA was an independent agency during the response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when the emergency manager of Dade County, Florida famously pleaded, “Where the hell is the cavalry?”
What is needed is for the Bush Administration to put competent people in charge of FEMA with disaster response experience. Political appointees like Michael Brown, who was an official with the International Arabian Horse Association before he came to FEMA, are a recipe for disaster. Congress needs to establish some sort of oversight on the administration of FEMA to ensure the organization is not a dumping ground for political appointees. Since President Carter formed FEMA, only Clinton appointed a FEMA director who had professional disaster management experience. And where was the press on this matter? Where was the investigative journalism needed to call attention to Michael Brown’s lack of credentials before Katrina? I think in general the press has been far too negligent investigating and reporting on the qualifications of the government officials who are responsible for ensuring the safety of Americans. Another example of this is the agency responsible for food safety in America–the Department of Agriculture. Right now you’d have a hard time finding a federal agency more completely dominated by the industry it was created to regulate. But you don’t hear the press saying much about this conflict of interest, despite the fact that each year food-borne illnesses kill four times as many Americans as died in Hurricane Katrina.
I don’t agree with each and every thing he says, but Masters certainly does make some good points. And that bit about the NHC vs. AccuWeather forecasts is very interesting. I didn’t know that before.
Speaking of AccuWeather… we conclude today’s tropical update with a bit of blatant Bastardi-bashing, courtesy of the SciGuy:
I sure wish Joe Bastardi would get his story straight. Who is supposed to be worried this year, the East Coast or Texas?
Here’s an update of his most recent “predictions”:
AccuWeather forecaster Joe Bastardi last week predicted hurricanes will strike the U.S. five times, with North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey and the southern New England coastlines facing the most risk. Three of those landfalls will be from major hurricanes, according to Bastardi, AccuWeather’s chief hurricane forecaster.
But earlier this year he told the Beaumont Enterprise this:
Joe Bastardi, AccuWeather.com’s chief forecaster, called 2005 a mere “warning shot” for a vicious cycle that could last 10 years. “The Texas coast is in for a long period of tropical activity, particularly the region from Corpus Christi to Sabine Pass at the Louisiana border,” Bastardi said in a March story in the Enterprise.
This is ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, Texas could very well get slammed by a hurricane this year. But there are certainly no guarantees, and anyone claiming to know where storms are most likely to strike in any given year is not credible, at best.
Oh wait, did I say that was the “conclusion” of this post? Well, there’s one final thing… last but not least… WXNation.com founder Bill Young Jr. is a daddy!!! Congrats, Bill!!!