Thursday, September 15, 2005

Intense Hurricanes and Global Warming? Duh.

The AP is reporting on research to be published Friday stating that the intensity of worldwide hurricanes has increased significantly over the past decade. Scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology say that the number of powerful hurricanes (cat 4 and 5) "rose to an average of 18 per year worldwide since 1990, up from 11 in the 1970s." The report will be published in tomorrow's Science magazine.

Some scientists over at the NOAA question the data saying that measurements taken in the 1970s were not accurate due to a technological difference between today's instruments and those that were used over 25 years ago. Personally, I don't think I need a anemometer to tell me that storm intensity is on the up and up; just look at how fast New Orleans washed out to sea. I've never heard of such destruction from a hurricane, and to think that the 6 of the 10 costliest (in $ not lives lost) hurricanes have occurred in the past 10 years definitely drives the point home: its only getting more intense and if you're living along the Gulf Coast, it might time to trade in your swimsuits for snowsuits and see what Michigan has to offer.

However, if you compare the top 10 strongest hurricanes on record between 1900 and 2004, only 2 (including Katrina) manage to make the list. It seems the most destructive hurricanes in U.S. history aren't necessarily the most intense but are causing the most damage, which begs the question: are we just lucky? What happens when more cat 5 hurricanes acutally stomp all over Miami, Tampa Bay, Orlando, the summer cottages of Hilton Head or Gavelston, TX? The financial damage at that point will be incomprehensible.

So, maybe the data of the past 75 years is not worth considering, since, as Chris Landsea of NOAA says, there just aren't sound results coming from anything pre-1985, due to inaccurate wind measurements and old-school equipment. But that puts us back to focusing on what we do have good data for, the past 15 years. That data isn't any friendlier. Since 1990, the U.S. has dealt with 4 different category 4 and 5 storms. Thats alot of big storms in just a 15 year period. In fact, outside of hurricanes Andrew and Hugo ('92 and '89) the last category 4 or 5 storm was in 1969.

Is the answer in building stronger, more expensive levees? Rebuilding the natural barrier islands that oil and gas companies have decimated could be a great addition to NO hurricane strategy. Checkout the CS Monitor's article on where this rebuilding should start.


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cameron said...

All good points you raise, Phit. But, I'm concerned (and only slightly so... don't get the wrong idea here) about when natural disasters are compared by cost of damage caused.

It seems to me cost is bound to increase as time goes on because we continue to spend more money on things. It's just a theory, but say we look at the total cost of what it took to build New Orleans 10 years ago and compare that to what has been spent on the city in the past decade (before the storm). Isn't there then that much more that can be damaged in the same space? Or how about we compare it to the damage caused by the tsunami in the city of Aceh, Sumatra - not nearly the same size as New Orleans - but say we take the same amount of surface area of New Orleans and compare that to any equal area affected by the tsunami. There just isn't the same kind of development in that part of the world.

So, that's all really just an uneducated and inarticulate way of saying: I don't think cost of damage caused or even lives lost is a helpful way to compare "how bad" storms are. And those numbers just serve as sensational statistics to argue one side or another anyway. Is there a more, dare I say 'ethical,' way to compare natural events in the world and the effect they have on us fragile humans?

And really... Haven't there been enough storms in the south that people shouldn't be so surprised now when one hits? If you don't like it, move. Many have according to a recent NPR story. It's not like anyone is hiding the risks with living in any given part of our volatile world.

OK. I'm done. Ciao!

Japhet said...

yeah you hit the nail on the head, cam. I think the reason we measure these natural disasters in a monetary way is because we haven't figured out to measure them in any other way. Money makes the world go 'round and translates to any language and culture (well..almost).

On a less philosophical level I think it translates to loss of material possesions, most of which we all paid good money for. When those possesions are snatched away or destroyed and their value condemned, it translates into "loss" for us. The day we move beyond that is the day we re-discover a new raison d'etre.

And yes I think development will always define the intensity of how we grade or rate natural disasters. There are trillions of dollars of real estate, businesses, products, cars, government property in San Francisco, despite the fact that the next 'quake could be "the Big One." So what happens when it hits? All that development will be wiped out or significantly damaged. Who knows, maybe California will start floating out towards Hawaii...Im sure middle America would have no problem with that! The bottom line is everyone out here knows it coming (whether they choose to think about it or not) and we continue to live our lives as if there is no real threat (which, maybe is the sign of living fearlessly or choose). So as development increases, as oceanside homes are continually built, homes in "Tornado Alley" not reinforced, and population booms, these natural diasters will only get more expensive and "worse" in the eyes of the public.

Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that these storms aren't just being judged on how much they wreck. Wind speeds, where the landfall point is, and how much water it dumps are all considered when judging the category of the storm. Checkout How Stuff Works for a good breakdown on what goes into judging hurricanes. Cool stuff....and thanks for the comments!