Global Warming Link to Hurricane Intensity Questioned

July 28, 2006

An expert with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is questioning the connection between climate change and the appearance of more intense hurricanes in recent years.

Historical data on hurricanes is too crude to determine long-term trends in intensity, says Christopher Landsea, a science and operations officer with NOAA's National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

Extreme hurricanes like Katrina were likely as common around the world 30 years ago as they are today, Landsea says. But since satellite imagery was poorer, storm intensities were underreported.

Landsea is the lead author of a commentary in today's issue of the research journal Science.

The commentary rebuts a string of papers published in the last 12 months that link global warming with a surge in the number of extreme tropical cyclones over the past 30 to 40 years. (Related story: "Warming Oceans Are Fueling Stronger Hurricanes, Study Finds" [March 16, 2006].)

Better Resolution

Right or wrong, the flooded neighborhoods, floating corpses, and stranded survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have come to symbolize the type of devastation the world can expect as global warming fuels bigger, more intense tropical storms.

(Get more information at the National Geographic magazine special feature on Hurricane Katrina.)

Satellite images of Katrina over the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005 feature prominently in former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's recent global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

But is global warming really fueling a surge in extreme tropical storms?

In 1975, Landsea says, two geostationary satellites watched the weather with coarse, 5.6-mile (9-kilometer) resolution. Today eight satellites with 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) resolution have that task.

"Twenty, thirty years ago we didn't have either the number of or resolution in satellites or the variety of other ways to monitor [hurricanes] that we do now," Landsea said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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