Friday, March 10, 2006

Why NOAA Didn't Help Connect the Dots -- Hurricane Katrina and Global Warming

update:  why the NOAA scientists didn't help us connect the dots: from the Wall Street Journal

Statement Acknowledges
Some Government Scientists
See Link to Global Warming

February 16, 2006; Page A4

Amid a growing outcry from climate researchers in its own ranks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration backed away from a statement it released after last year's powerful hurricane season that discounted any link to global warming. A corrected statement, which says some NOAA researchers disagree with that view, was posted to NOAA's Web site yesterday.The change is part of a high-stakes fight over the issue of global warming, and what some scientists complain is a widening gap between what their research shows and White House climate policy. Three NOAA scientists, speaking in interviews, said the agency has begun keeping closer tabs on their comments to journalists. One of them also said the agency has declined to let him take part in interviews on controversial topics. Such charges have been publicly leveled by scientists outside the agency since December. They gained force last week when James Hansen, a climate researcher at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, again accused NOAA of censoring scientific communication. Dr. Hansen has said NASA public-affairs officials had tried to discourage him from presenting his views that human activities could lead to severe global warming. Late Tuesday, NOAA administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., sent an email to agency staff saying that he encourages "scientists to speak freely and openly" and rejected charges that NOAA scientists have been discouraged from commenting on whether human-caused global warming is influencing hurricanes.In the wake of Dr. Hansen's comments, some NOAA scientists say they are now speaking out.Pieter Tans, a researcher who studies carbon dioxide at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., says public-affairs "minders" now sit in on more interviews, something that didn't happen before. He said he sees it as an attempt to control comments about the dangers of climate change. A ruckus erupted after the November issue of the agency's magazine said there was a "consensus" among NOAA hurricane experts that increases in hurricane activity were primarily the result of natural factors -- even though within NOAA some believed man-made warming was a key cause. Kerry Emanuel, a climate researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he found the statement problematic because it appeared to represent an official NOAA position, and might discourage agency scientists from contradicting it. Dr. Emanuel, who believes global warming is making hurricanes worse, was among the first to publicly criticize NOAA's policy at a major meeting in December, where he termed it "censorship." Scott Smullen, NOAA's deputy director of public affairs, said the article was never meant to be an official position, and added that the use of the word "consensus" was a mistake made by one of his staff members. "There is no consensus," Mr. Smullen said. Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist with the agency's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., said he believes his views have been censored by the NOAA public-affairs office because of his view that global warming could be making hurricanes worse. Last October the public-affairs office said no to a scheduled interview with CNBC television, he said. "NOAA public affairs called and asked what I would say to certain questions, like is there a trend in Atlantic hurricanes," Dr. Knutson said. "I said I thought there was a possibility of a trend emerging that tropical hurricanes were becoming more intense. They turned down that interview." Mr. Smullen says he wasn't aware of that particular case, but notes that Dr. Knutson gives dozens of interviews a year, and that interview requests can be turned down for numerous reasons. On another occasion, Dr. Knutson said he had been invited around the time of Hurricane Katrina to appear on a television show with Ron Reagan, the son of former President Reagan who is co-host of a show on MSNBC. But shortly before he was to appear, he got a voice mail from a person in public affairs. "He said, 'The White House turned it down,' " Dr. Knutson said. White House officials said they weren't immediately aware of any attempt on their part to block Dr. Knutson's interview, but added they don't censor government scientists. They added NOAA researchers gave numerous interviews during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "Dr. Tom Knutson took part in those interviews and is a leading climate modeler and well respected in the scientific community," said White House spokeswoman Michele St. Martin. NOAA officials say the White House doesn't rule on their media requests. They also say they weren't immediately aware of the Ron Reagan matter, but add they usually decline media requests when it appears they are frivolous. "If someone were to call in and it is in the nature of a food fight, we decline that," said Jordan St. John, director of NOAA's public affairs. "We are a serious science agency."

update: NOAAs summary (10/24/05): Global Warming and Hurricanes; see also KT response to Michaels (10/10/05) Knutson Reply

   In Science, Kerr addresses the relationship between anthropogenic climate change and hurricanes.  Until recently, there were no empirical studies supporting climate change modeling results that predicted an increase in hurricane intensity.  However, the data is catching up to the models.  Today, Science published a new study by Webster et al suggesting that numbers and duration of hurricanes are indeed growing in the North Atlantic, but not in other oceans that are experiencing temperature increases.  All basins are experiencing increasing numbers of category 4 and 5 hurricanes.  Webster - Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment    Summarized by the Economist. Hurricanes   Human-caused climate change to date may be part of the explanation, but scientists are not certain.  However, human-caused climate change may become a more significant a driver of hurricane intensity as warming continues through the century.  [updated 9/15]


Original post 8/31/05 with cites and comments:
        At the beginning of August, we knew that there would be more tropical storms/hurricanes.  See post of 8/2/05.  Hurricane frequency/dead zone post.  That post reported NOAAs August hurricane outlook. ( Expert Assessments: Atlantic Hurricane Outlook Update).  We also knew that the increasing intensity of tropical storms/hurricanes has been tied to climate change.  See post of 8/1/05. Hurricane intensity post reporting Emanuel study , Trenbarth Summary, discussion on the climate science scientists' blog: Real Climate Storms and Global Warming , NOAA's Knutson Global warming and hurricanes, and  Knutson and Tuleya comparative model study Knutson and Tuleya .   

        As hurricanes hit land, they increasingly encounter densely developed areas -- due to population growth and government policies that encourage development in vulnerable areas [I'm willing to go out on a limb here] -- that have lost their natural ability to absorb floods because of the destruction of wetlands [which is one of the principal reasons we protect wetlands].    Population growth, development in vulnerable areas, wetlands destruction, poor engineering, failure to fund known and feasible preventative measures, inadequate response planning (and in hindsight inadequate response implementation) are all culprits.


        The way I connect the dots of climate change is that the climate change we are inducing is taking and will increasingly take a huge toll in human life -- including, but not limited to, human lives destroyed in hurricanes like Katrinaearly reporting on impacts    The climate change approach that has been pursued by the United States, which fails to aggressively address climate change and prevent such tragedies (and the enormous array of other adverse impacts), is morally bankrupt.

        The number and intensity of hurricanes during a particular hurricane season vary widely.  However, intensification of even a naturally increasing or varying number of hurricanes means more destruction.  An individual hurricane like Katrina is not "caused" by global warming.  Several colleagues have pointed out that one should be careful about  linking hurricanes to climate change.    Because of the large natural variation in number and intensity of hurricanes during a given year and the natural cyclical nature of the variation, it is hard for scientists to prove (or disprove) a trend -- and it is, of course, impossible to say a particular hurricane was "caused" by global warming.   Another colleague has underscored this point by pointing to a paper released by Pielke Jr. as Katrina approached the Gulf Coast.  Hurricanes and Global Warming.  See also Pielke Jr. blog  Prometheus  [FYI: Pielke Jr is a political science/science policy person and Pielke Sr. is the meteorologist.  Both have been key players in questioning the accuracy of climate change modeling and stressing that the climate changes induced by humans are not limited to greenhouse gas emissions, but include landscape changes and aerosol emissions -- fair enough, but beside the point for purposes of this discussion]. 

        But as another colleague points out that natural cycles and global warming are not mutually exclusive explanations of an increase in number or intensity of hurricanes.  Even if climate change is a small factor in increasing numbers of intense tropical storms and even if hurricanes are a "minor" part of the adverse impacts from climate change -- that does not make any intensification  of the increasing number of hurricanes unimportant. 

      The impacts we have witnessed from an "indirect hit" on New Orleans from a major hurricane hopefully put human faces on the word "intensification."

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» Katrina, hurricanes and global warming from Quicksilver כספית
I caution against blaming Katrina on global warming, as does Ross Gelbspan (generally a good environmental journalist). Granted, oil and energy policies should change, but Arthur Waskow overplays the Katrina card. See the analysis, links and debate at ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 31, 2005 4:34:00 PM


What do you think about the idea that the private sector (e.g., insurance companies) will push harder for greenhouse gas control, given these potential effects? It always seems that env. law changes are more likely, or perhaps work better, when economic interests are consistent with the change.

Posted by: Jerry Anderson | Aug 31, 2005 1:33:59 PM

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