Archive for Sunday, August 20, 2006

Debate over climate change intensifies with hurricane season

August 20, 2006

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— A year after Hurricane Katrina and other major storms battered the U.S. coast, the question of whether hurricanes are becoming more destructive because of global warming has become perhaps the most hotly contested question in the scientific debate over climate change.

Academics have published a flurry of papers either supporting or debunking the idea that warmer temperatures linked to human activity are fueling more intense storms. The issue remains unresolved, but it has acquired a political potency that has made both sides heavily invested in the outcome.

Paradoxically, the calm hurricane season in the Atlantic so far this year has only intensified the argument.

Both sides are using identical data but coming up with conflicting conclusions. There are several reasons why.

Using different time periods to chart hurricane patterns can influence the results. Different academic backgrounds also affect how researchers interpret the data.

Inevitably, the scientific debate has spilled into the policy arena. Former vice president Al Gore took up the issue in his recent film "An Inconvenient Truth," suggesting that Katrina and other severe storms reflect a broader trend clearly traceable to global warming.

Scientists who doubt a link with global warming say this year's average Atlantic hurricane season simply shows how variable weather can be.

Christopher Landsea, who works in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division, published an opinion piece in the journal Science late last month in which he argued that data indicating that recent hurricanes have been more intense than those in the 1970s and '80s may be based on flawed information. Measurement technologies were less sophisticated then and may have underestimated the strength of earlier storms, he said.

"We're woefully underestimating how strong hurricanes were back then," Landsea said. "I'm sure it's confusing to the general public, since you have different scientists saying different things. We're all trying to figure out the same thing: What's going on with our climate?"

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