Weather and Society Watch
Review of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming*
The U.S. suffered devastating hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, storms criss-crossed Florida, highlighting its vulnerability and threatening to affect the presidential election as the government's disaster response resources were tested. The following year was incomparably worse in terms of lives and property lost as Hurricanes Dennis, Emily, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma left a trail of destruction.
It was a freakishly bumper year for Atlantic storms in general - the National Hurricane Center ran through the entire alphabet of storm names and was forced to use Greek letter identifiers for the last several storms. In the wake of these events, Chris Mooney poses the question: Is global warming making hurricane activity a bigger threat?
In Storm World , Mooney addresses the issue through interviews and portraits of some of the leading voices in climate and tropical storm research. He talks with Bill Gray of Colorado State University, the "Grand Old Man of hurricane forecasting," who has made a name for himself with his annual hurricane-season forecasts. Gray is a vehement critic of any link between global warming and tropical storms and a global warming skeptic in general.
On the other side, he talks to prominent global-warming theorists such as Kerry Emanuel of MIT, Judith Curry of Georgia Tech, and Greg Holland, Director of the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology (MMM) Division at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Mooney also relates the hurricane-global warming issue to the debates over global warming, federal science funding, and censorship of scientists by the current administration (the latter is not surprising in light of Mooney's previous book, The Republican War on Science). Despite these dimensions, or perhaps because of them, Mooney takes great pains to provide a balanced argument.
Mooney begins with a brief history of the science of tropical storms and introduces enough technical concepts and terms to provide a basis for intelligent discussion. Mooney also presents background on how storms originate and what drives them, and describes the effects of sea-surface temperatures, wind shear, and steering winds.
Climate may affect storms, and storms may, in turn, affect climate by transporting heat from the tropics to the mid-latitudes. Mooney notes that storms in the Atlantic basin naturally attract widespread press coverage in the United States but are only part of the global tropical storm picture. Indian Ocean storms are the source of the most casualties worldwide since they make landfall in densely-populated and impoverished areas, while the Pacific Ocean produces the greatest number of storms with the most intense strengths.
The book is not really an attempt to answer the question of whether global warming is driving an increase in storm frequency or intensity. Instead, it is a journalistic treatment of the controversy, the competing theories, and the debates that have taken place at academic meetings and in the press. As readers, we benefit from meeting some of the scientists and getting to know them, but we are also dragged through sometimes wearying accounts of each camp's criticism of the other and debates over who will and won't sign this or that public statement. The book describes storms, but is largely devoted to the human s turm und drang surrounding the issue.
Taken as a whole, the book is a balanced, well-written treatment of a controversial issue at the boundary of science and politics. Mooney's thoroughness is evidenced by 290 endnotes, a long list of interviews, and the five pages of bibliography and recommended reading that accompany the text.
Mooney defers to the experts on the key question. As he comments in Chapter 14, "We watch scientists battle, and no matter how much of their debates we think we understand, if we're honest we know they're always a little bit ahead of us, knowing a little bit (or a lot) more." He makes a sensible plea for enlightened, fair, and accessible discussion. He also calls for a focus on preparedness, since it is clear that destructive storms will continue to occur, whether or not we think we know why.
*Mooney, Chris, 2007. Storm World. Orlando: Harcourt.
**Ken (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a technical programs attorney at Argonne National Laboratory.