Storm World: A Review

If you’ve followed the scientific debate on global warming and hurricanes, you will recognize many of the characters in Mooney’s tale (yours truly even gets mentioned a few times :) ). You will also not be surprised to find that William Gray and Kerry Emanuel are the two most prominently featured scientists. In part of course, because they neatly symbolize the two opposing camps in the current debate: contrast for example Emanuel’s work demonstrating a linkage between increasing hurricane intensity and global warming with Gray’s denial of any such link. However, Mooney also traces their respective work back to two different historical schools of thought in the atmospheric science community. On one side are the data-driven empiricists, such as Redfield, Loomis,and Riehl and on the other side the theorists such as Espy, Ferrel and Charney. Gray naturally follows in the tradition of the first group (his Ph.D adviser was Riehl who is sometimes credited as the father of the field of tropical meteorology). Emanuel, a student of Charney, follows in the tradition of the great theorists in atmospheric science. Of course its not quite that simple (and Mooney acknowledges as much). Though Emanuel may perhaps be best known for his theoretical investigations of Hurricane potential intensity, he has also done considerable work analyzing observations. And while best known for his work deducing from observations the parameters governing hurricane genesis, Gray has nonetheless made forays into “theory” (though the results have been decidedly mixed). But the historical context that Mooney provides gives quite a bit of insight into the divergent views that have arisen among partisans in the current hurricane-climate debate.

Mooney covers many of the themes and issues we’ve discussed here before, but adds his own novel interpretations and uncovers a number of key historical details, in the process of stitching together a compelling narrative. Naturally, there is discussion of the hoopla over the active 2004 and 2005 Atlantic hurricane seasons and the aftermath of Katrina. There is extensive discussion of the high-profile studies by Emanuel, Webster, Curry and coworkers (see e.g. here and here) which, eerily coincident with the record-setting 2005 season, first suggested a detectable climate change signal in hurricane behavior. Due attention, in turn, is payed to the active scientific debate these studies have subsequently generated. Mooney describes the debate over the role of natural vs. anthropogenic factors in observed tropical warming trends that have been related to increased hurricane activity, and there is a fair amount of discussion of the partisanship that high-level NOAA administrators have apparently taken in this debate. But, you might ask, what is the bottom line taken by Mooney? What side of the debate does he come down on? Well, again, those looking for a fight will again be disappointed.

Mooney doesn’t come down on any particular ‘side’ of the debate. Instead, he explores the nuances of the scientific findings and views of the various protagonists, and helps the science and the scientists speak for themselves. For example, he gives Bill Gray credit (and rightly so) for the important contributions he has made to our current understanding of hurricane genesis, and shows a somewhat bemused admiration for Gray as a sympathetic relic of a dying breed of atmospheric scientist. But this does not stand in the way of him criticizing Gray (again rightly so) for his curmudgeonly scorn of current generation scientists, and in particular his somewhat irrational rejection of the science supporting an anthropogenic influence on climate. Mooney articulates his criticism gently, by citing Arthur C. Clarke’s “First Law”

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