[permaculture] BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Humans 'causing stronger storms'
Lawrence F. London, Jr.
lfl at intrex.net
Tue Sep 12 07:53:17 EDT 2006
Last Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006, 21:44 GMT 22:44 UK
Humans 'causing stronger storms'
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Flooded New Orleans. Image: AP
Katrina drew attention to a possible link from emissions to storms
Increases in hurricane intensity are down to humanity's greenhouse gas emissions, according to new analysis.
Scientists calculate that two-thirds of the recent rise in sea temperatures, thought to fuel hurricanes, is down to
Research published last year found there had been a sharp rise in the incidence of category 4 and 5 storms - the
strongest - in recent decades.
But other scientists caution there may be errors in historical storm records.
Hurricane formation is strongly linked to sea surface temperature, with warmer waters more likely to form storms.
Temperature increases in these hurricane breeding grounds cannot be explained by natural processes alone
Sea surface temperature and hurricane strength vary naturally, and deciphering a clear impact of human greenhouse gas
emissions has been difficult.
However, the last two years have seen several major pieces of research which have at least increased understanding of
the issue, without settling it conclusively.
Peak of intensity
In July last year, Kerry Emanuel, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published research showing that the
duration, maximum wind speeds and energy released in tropical storms has increased markedly in both the North Atlantic
and the North Pacific oceans since the mid-1970s.
A few months later Peter Webster from the Georgia Institute of Technology documented a rise in the incidence of category
4 and 5 storms; the 15-year period from 1975 to 1989 saw 171 severe hurricanes, but the number rose to 269 for the
subsequent 15 years.
He told the BBC News website at the time: "What I think we can say is that the increase in intensity is probably
accounted for by the increase in sea surface temperature, and I think probably the sea surface temperature increase is a
manifestation of global warming."
Then in June this year, Kevin Trenberth of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research analysed the exceptionally
active 2005 North Atlantic hurricane season.
Sea surface temperatures (SST) had been 0.9C above the long-term average, he found; and by comparing the North Atlantic
with other regions of the ocean, he deduced that human greenhouse gas emissions accounted for about half of this rise.
Hurricane explanatory graphic, BBC
Hurricanes: Animated Guide
The latest research takes things another step further, using 22 computer models of climate to examine a possible link
between SSTs and human-induced global warming.
These models typically deal in projections and probabilities, which is inevitable with a huge and chaotic system such as
Benjamin Santer, Tom Wigley and colleagues conclude: "There is an 84% chance that external forcing [human activities]
explain at least 67% of the observed SST increases" in the Pacific and Atlantic zones where hurricanes form.
"The important conclusion is that the observed SST increases in these hurricane breeding grounds cannot be explained by
natural processes alone," said Dr Wigley.
"The best explanation for these changes has to include a large human influence."
On a political level, the debate over hurricane intensity has become a poster child for climate sceptics.
They object to what they regard as overblown, opportunistic links made by some commentators between the devastation of
Hurricane Katrina, in particular, and rising greenhouse gas concentrations.
Their arguments are given scientific underpinning by problems which some researchers have identified in historical
records of storms.
Historically a storm was given a certain strength, and then it's re-analysed and it comes out as having been much stronger
Satellite observations date back only about 35 years, and even then there are issues of calibration; were early
instruments measuring things in precisely the same way as their successors? Before that, researchers have to rely on
written records from observations on land and at sea.
"I've seen examples where historically a storm was given a certain strength, and then it's re-analysed and it comes out
as having been much stronger," commented Julian Heming, tropical prediction scientist with the UK Meteorological Office.
"And even if we take it as read that there is an increase in the baseline of sea surface temperature, there are
complexities in the way that cyclone formation reacts to that," he told the BBC News website.
"The hurricane now approaching Bermuda [Florence] struggled and struggled to get to hurricane intensity; so there will
be year-to-year differences, and even storm-to-storm differences."
Sceptical observers also maintain that computer models are far from perfect.
But as Benjamin Santer and Tom Wigley point out, what other tools are there for projecting the future?
"In the real world, we are performing an unprecedented and uncontrolled geophysical experiment," they write. "We know,
beyond a shadow of doubt, that [human] activities have changed the chemical composition of the Earth's atmosphere.
"In a post-Katrina world, we need to do the best job we possibly can to understand the complex influences on hurricane
Richard.Black-INTERNET at bbc.co.uk
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