Energy and hurricanes

Last August, at the height of this year’s hurricane season but before Katrina, MIT meteorologist Professor Kerry Emanuel published in Nature his findings that the intensity of hurricanes — their “total energy consumption” — had increased, and that this increase tracked with the increase in global temperature. In fact, the increases in hurricane duration and power exceeded what global warming theory and computer models suggested, the professor found.

Emanuel’s prior reputation as a scientist who approached global warming theories cautiously seemed primed to assure his findings more attention. However, Katrina was such a dramatic, horrific event, and then such a politicized one, that the notion of “global warming causing Katrina” became grist for the same political mill as “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

Maybe now Emanuel’s findings can get a more sober hearing. Here is the key exchange from a New York Times interview with Emanuel this morning:

Q. Because last year’s hurricane season was so intense, many people declared: “Ah, ha! Global warming!” Were they right?

A. My answer is, Not so fast. That may have been a contributor. But the fact we had such a bad season was mostly a matter of chance. On the other hand, though the number of storms globally remained nearly constant, the frequency of Atlantic storms has been rising in concert with tropical ocean temperature, probably because of global warming.

There is no doubt that in the last 20 years, the earth has been warming up. And it’s warming up much too fast to ascribe to any natural process we know about.

We still don’t have a good grasp of how clouds and water vapor, the two big feedbacks in the climate system, will respond to global warming. What we are seeing is a modest increase in the intensity of hurricanes.

At some point, the debate over global warming’s validity will end, and the discussion will finally turn to what we should do about it. Are we, as a global society, capable of reaching a consensus on a course of action that could be very expensive and challenging? Will advances in energy technology bail us out, and if so, how do we insure their universal application? Or will we decide, collectively, to ride it out, and focus on adapting to a world with climate and storm patterns that might be dramatically different than those on which our population dispersion and economy are based?

Emanuel seems to be banking on technology, but his answer illustrates the difficulty of the challenge:

It’s always struck me as odd that this country hasn’t put far more resources into research on alternative energy. Europeans are. France has managed to go 85 percent nuclear in its electrical generation. And the Europeans have gotten together to fund a major nuclear fusion project. It almost offends my pride as a U.S. scientist that we’ve fallen down so badly in this competition.

I don’t see any evidence that the environmental community is gearing up to embrace nuclear power. In fact, the reverse. They’d like to see the words “alternative energy” apply to sustainable or very clean technologies like hydrogen fuel cells. I think the environmentalists are going to win that argument. The inability of this country to site even one nuclear waste facility means it would be irresponsible to create more of it.

Most environmentally-preferred alternatives are far away from being ready or affordable for universal application as a replacement for the energy resources we use now. Ironically, the one clean, sustainable alternative that is now within reach economically — wind power — is being heavily constrained by wealthy, influential NIMBYs with sterling environmental credentials. So…at least for the next decade or two, our policy will be to ride it out and hope for better things down the road. Heckuva job, everybody.


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