Is Global Warming Causing Bigger Hurricanes?
The nasty scientific battle behind one of our most important weather mysteries.
The hurricane war is also, naturally, about political turf. The skeptics occupy some of the most valued scientific ground out there—many, including Landsea and Mayfield, work for NOAA and are involved in the federal government's annual efforts to forecast and track hurricanes. That gives them automatic authority in the public eye and ready pulpits in the media and on Capitol Hill. "The other side has arguably had a certain advantage in communicating its ideas on this subject to the public," says Judith Curry, one of the authors of the Georgia Tech study. NOAA, the nation's premier scientific agency, hasn't even acknowledged there is a debate about one of the most urgent and disputed global-warming topics. Nature magazine recently reported that when a panel of NOAA scientists drafted a consensus statement on the issue suggesting that warming might be affecting hurricanes, administrators quashed it.
Whichever side you're on, there's no reason to relax: Everybody agrees that the Atlantic is due for several decades of bigger, more powerful storms. Practically speaking, the key difference of opinion is what will happen after that—whether the cycle will turn mercifully quiet again or whether the hurricane trend line will simply continue to climb. If the latter scenario comes to pass, our current levees-and-a-prayer approach won't be of much use.
John McQuaid is a Washington-based journalist. He has written about mountaintop removal for Smithsonian magazine and Yale Environment 360. He is working on a book about the science of taste. Follow him on Twitter @johnmcquaid.
Illustration above and on Slate's home page by Robert Neubecker.