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It has now become all too common. Peculiar weather precipitates immediate blame on global warming by some, and equally immediate pronouncements by others (curiously, quite often the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in recent years) that global warming can’t possibly be to blame. The reality, as we’ve often remarked here before, is that absolute statements of neither sort are scientifically defensible. Meteorological anomalies cannot be purely attributed to deterministic factors, let alone any one specific such factor (e.g. either global warming or a hypothetical long-term climate oscillation).
Lets consider the latest such example. In an odd repeat of last year (the ‘groundhog day’ analogy growing ever more appropriate), we find ourselves well into the meteorological Northern Hemisphere winter (Dec-Feb) with little evidence over large parts of the country (most noteably the eastern and central U.S.) that it ever really began. Unsurprisingly, numerous news stories have popped up asking whether global warming might be to blame. Almost as if on cue, representatives from NOAA’s National Weather Service have been dispatched to tell us that the event e.g. “has absolutely nothing to do with global warming”, but instead is entirely due to the impact of the current El Nino event.
[Update 1/9/07: NOAA coincidentally has announced today that 2006 was officially the warmest year on record for the U.S.]
[Update 2/11/08: It got bumped to second place. ]
by Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt
Roughly a year ago, we summarized the state of play in the ongoing scientific debate over the role of anthropogenic climate change in the observed trends in hurricane activity. This debate (as carefully outlined by Curry et al recently) revolves around a number of elements – whether the hurricane (or tropical cyclone) data show any significant variations, what those variations are linked to, and whether our understanding of the physics of tropical storms is sufficient to explain those links.
Several recent studies such as Emanuel (2005 — previously discussed here) and Hoyos et al (2006 — previously discussed here) have emphasized the role of increasing tropical sea surface temperatures (SSTs) on recent increases in hurricane intensities, both globally and for the Atlantic. The publication this week of a comprehensive paper by Santer et al provides an opportunity to assess the key middle question – to what can we attribute the relevant changes in tropical SSTs? And in particular, what can we say about Atlantic SSTs where we have the best data? More »
Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt
Judith Curry and colleagues have an interesting (and possibly provocative) article, “Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis That Greenhouse Warming Is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity” in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS). The article provides a solid review of the recent developments in the science focusing on potential climate change impacts on tropical cyclones. However, the article is more novel in its approach than the typical scientific review article. For instance, it attempts to deal with the issue of how one should test hypotheses that reflect a complex causal chain of individual hypotheses. This is of course relevant to investigations of climate change influences on tropical cyclone activity, where one is attempting to connect a phenomenon (climate change) that is global in spatial scale and multidecadal in timescale, to a phenomena that is intrinsically “mesoscale” (that is, spans at most hundreds of kilometers) in space and lasts only a few days.
More unusually, the article also takes an introspective look at the role of scientists in communicating societally-relevant science to the public, and provides a critical review of how the science dealing with climate change impacts on tropical cyclones and hurricanes has been reported in the media, and how that reporting has occasionally deepened the polarisation on the issue. In doing so, the article revisits some of the “false objectivity” problems we have talked about before (see here and here). They also assess fairly the quality of the arguments that have been made in response to the Emanuel (2005) and Webster et al (2005) papers in the hope of focussing discussion on the more valid points, rather than some of the more fallacious arguments. The article is unapologetic in advancing their particular point of view, and while we generally share it, we imagine that some readers may disagree. We hope, as we suspect the authors do as well, that it will in any case generate a productive discussion.
Guest commentary from Thomas Crowley
NOAA has issued its annual forecast for the hurricane season, along with its now-standard explanation that there is a natural cycle of multidecadal (40-60 year) length in the North Atlantic circulation (often referred to as the “Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation”–see Figure), that is varying the frequency of Atlantic tropical cyclones, and that the present high level of activity is due to a concurrent positive peak in this oscillation. More »
There was another twist to the hurricanes/global warming issue in Science Express on Friday where a new paper from the Webster/Curry team just appeared. This study, lead by Carlos Hoyos, crosses a few t’s and dots a couple of i’s on the connection of increasing numbers of intense hurricanes (Cat. 4 and 5) to sea surface temperatures (SST). Basically, they looked at a number of other key variables for hurricane intensity (like wind shear and humidity) and examined whether there was any pattern to those variables across the different ocean basins that they study. Bottom line? None of the other variables have as much explanatory power for the long term trends as SST which is the only consistently trending constituent in the mix. So far, so un-surprising. However, one interesting aspect of this story is that almost all the key players in the ongoing debate were interviewed by different journalists in various media and those comments are probably more useful for gauging the state of play than the details of the new paper itself. More »
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