Rita & Global Warming

by Richard on September 23, 2005

Is hurricane Rita the latest bit of evidence for global warming? The Independent has no doubts if its front page today is anything to go by

Super-powerful hurricanes now hitting the United States are the “smoking gun” of global warming, one of Britain’s leading scientists believes.

The growing violence of storms such as Katrina, which wrecked New Orleans, and Rita, now threatening Texas, is very probably caused by climate change, said Sir John Lawton, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Hurricanes were getting more intense, just as computer models predicted they would, because of the rising temperature of the sea, he said. “The increased intensity of these kinds of extreme storms is very likely to be due to global warming.”

In a series of outspoken comments - a thinly veiled attack on the Bush administration, Sir John hit out at neoconservatives in the US who still deny the reality of climate change.

Referring to the arrival of Hurricane Rita he said: “If this makes the climate loonies in the States realise we’ve got a problem, some good will come out of a truly awful situation.”

Meanwhile, the head of the National Hurricane Center, Dr Max Mayfield, has told a panel of the US Congress that global warming is an irrelevance

Max Mayfield told a congressional panel that he believes the Atlantic Ocean is in a cycle of increased hurricane activity that parallels an increase that started in the 1940s and ended in the 1960s.

The ensuing lull lasted until 1995, then “it’s like somebody threw a switch,” Mayfield said. The number and power of hurricanes increased dramatically.

Under questioning by members of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on disaster prevention and prediction, he shrugged off the notion that global warming played a role, saying instead it was a natural cycle in the Atlantic Ocean that fluctuates every 25 to 40 years.

So where does the truth lie? The BBC has a helpful and balanced appraisal of the evidence, producing a conclusion that it’s hard to argue with:

Now that climate scientists are being taken seriously, they are also under pressure to produce instant answers.

One problem is that not all of those answers exist. Another problem is that some scientists - not to mention lobby groups, environmental organisations, politicians, newspapers and commentators - will go much further in their public statements than the data allow.

With such incendiary material, that is unlikely to change; but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we would all benefit from people on both wings of the issue looking rather more to research, however laboured its progress, and rather less to screaming headlines and easy quotes.

My own view, for what it’s worth (maybe not much!) is that the case for the human impact on climate change is proven beyond reasonable doubt. The world is warming, and human beings have a lot to do with that. It is known that ocean temperatures are a factor in the formation of hurricanes — warmer water produces more and stronger hurricanes. My guess would be that what we’re seeing is global warming adding to the natural cycle of hurricane formation. Perhaps an individual hurricane can’t be linked to global warming directly.

But a warmer world inevitably means more frequent extreme weather events like Rita.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Mark Byron 09.24.05 at 3:19 pm

“But a warmer world inevitably means more frequent extreme weather events like Rita.”

IIRC, bad weather’s caused largely by the difference in temperture between areas. If the temp’s warmer but more evenly warm, we could have less bad weather. However, meteorology’s not my strongest suit.

2

Richard 09.24.05 at 3:54 pm

It isn’t mine, either. That’s never stopped me having an opinion! :)

3

Ivan the Crank 09.25.05 at 3:21 am

Global warming or not, the hurricanes seem to be coming fast and furious and we keep talking about rebuilding along all of our coasts as though it is our God-given right to do so. If we weren’t so arrogant about our abilities to take on nature and to own and build on land where were really shouldn’t, then the potential of vast destruction, economic impact and human loss will continue to be fulfilled. Point in case: the levees in New Orleans were not sturdy or adequate before Katrina, so we plug them with dirt, rocks and sandbags, drain whole communities and sound the all clear to come home, only to have rains from Rita make quick work of those levees once again. When will we learn?

4

Richard 09.25.05 at 7:37 am

Fair points, Ivan.
I’ve really felt for those caught up by these recent hurricanes - it brings back the memory of a day last year when we sitting in a house in Fruitland Park waiting for Charlie, with little else to do but watch the weather channel. We got away with it in the end, but the dreadful anticipation is something that will stay with me for a long time.

5

David Taylor 09.26.05 at 11:43 pm

Its very easy to jump to conclusions in the area of Global warming, the BBC Online article was actually a breath of fresh air in the relentless swirl of propaganda.

We need to separate the issues if we are to have a sensible debate. No one doubts that the globeis warming, it has been for several hundred years since the end of the last ice age and is likley to continue to do so until we start to descend into the next ice age. This is evidenced by retreating glaciers and snow and ice fields. This is not a surprise, in Dickens time the Thames regularly froze over, it no longer does.

The next issue is more complex: is human activity, particularly the release of greenhouse gases enhancing the effect. We know that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are slowly increasing, probably because of increased burning of fossil fuels, because it has been measured for sevarl decades in Mauna Lowa in Hawaii. But two rising trends represent an association not necessarily a causative effect. There is a similar correlation between the number of women priests and the number of abortions but no-one would suggest that one caused the other. This is the area where there is controversy, many climate scientists claim that there is a mechanistic relationship but a number of others do not and many simply admit that they cannot be certain.

Hurricaines are well known to be cyclical in their frequency and intensity, although no-one knows why this should be so. There is little if any information to suggest that Katrina and Rita represent abnormal conditions and less to suggest that they were caused by global warming.

6

Richard 09.27.05 at 7:35 am

David -
When you say (re CO2) “many climate scientists claim that there is a mechanistic relationship but a number of others do not and many simply admit that they cannot be certain.” there’s an implication that the “many” in each group have some sort of equivalance. But isn’t it a fact that the majority of the world’s climatologists accept that the case for the human impact on global warming has at least been made sufficiently strongly to warrant action to reduce ghg emissions. I recall a while ago the leading scietific institutions of several nation publishing a joint statement which said, “There will always be uncertainty in understanding a system as complex as the world’s climate. However there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring … from direct measurements of rising surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures and from phenomena such as increases in average global sea levels, retreating glaciers, and changes to many physical and biological systems. It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities.”
Of course, the causal link between emissions and global temperature is not proven beyond any doubt. But the Antarctica ice core data alone (more than seven hundred thousand year’s worth!) — showing that CO2 concentration and temperature closely map one another — surely puts it beyond reasonable doubt?

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