Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Book Review: Chris Mooney: Storm World - the future of hurricanes

                          hurricane from low earth orbit

Chris Mooney: Storm World, Harcourt, 2007; 287 pages, appendices, index, copious chapter notes and references (happily relegated to the back of the text, 75 pages of notes!), impressive recommended reading list (6pages), list of interviews conducted, a few photos and graphs (but not enough).

abbreviations used in writing this article:

CC - climate change
GW - global warming

           The subtitle says it all: hurricanes, politics and the battle over global warming.

           The back story is interesting. For the scientifically inclined, it's not as interesting as the science behind global warming but, from a practical perspective, necessary reading. (Why, for example, are CO2 levels still increasing with 2015, the first year on record, topping 3 parts per million rise in atmospheric CO2?)


          The cast of characters is colorful, the politics byzantine, the drama of human hubris and disordered nature! As in Greek or Shakespearean tragedy we suspect that the disorder of nature is punishment for human hubris and inflation in the face of the gods. Such are our times.. we live a Shakespearean tragedy (? MacBeth ?)


             Mooney strikes me as an idealistic young man who has done his best to be "objective" by temporarily attempting to suppress his own opinions and prejudices. The fact that he succeeded - to the degree possible in our imperfect world - is shown by an e-mail from prof William Gray (one of the major anti-GW actors) following the publication of the first edition of Stormworld: "You were dealing with a character (me) and you portrayed me pretty much as I am. You have now saved me from having to write my autobiography!" Since Mooney is a pro-global warming (GW) journalist and writer, this is strong praise indeed for his objectivity from a prime adversary! (Mooney admitted that, on a personal level, he liked the obstreperous Gray and would have liked to have had an inspiring teacher like him while at university.)

              Unfortunately, climate science does not have enough data (or well founded theoretical models of hurricane physics) to accurately predict the evolution of the threat posed by hurricanes in an era of CC / GW. The scientific study of hurricanes is barely out of its infancy. Earlier cultures most exposed to hurricane fury were preliterate (for the most part) and left no "time series" of hurricane strikes for future researchers to detect trends with. Worse, hurricanes are geographically limited to a few ocean basins and are relatively compact and short lived events. They may be intense for those who live through a really bad one but their small geographical and temporal footprints reduce their large-scale observability.

              Until the 20th century, most hurricanes were never observed. A few ship captains who managed to survive their impact provided lurid descriptions of their fury. Hurricanes would regularly - but randomly - lumber ashore in the American South-east but no one knew where these strange storms originated, less still was known of their dynamics and physics. A few sea captains and academics studied hurricanes from a desire to save human life and property or simply out of curiosity. Interviews with seagoing survivors provided a primitive hurricane "database": location, time, direction of rotation, wind speed, storm velocity, and survival tricks (how to angle a ship with respect to dominant winds to increase chances of survival..)

               A true observational hurricane science emerged only in the post WW II era, based at first on aircraft observation and more recently (circa 1965 - 70) aided by panoramic satellite imagery. Thermodynamics, the science of the movement / transformation of energy (in this case, heat), began to be applied to the study of hurricane dynamics as mounting quantities of data began to pour in.

             Unfortunately, the "Time Series" of scientific hurricane observations is still too short to interpret the "changes" we see - or think we see! - today. The very existence of trends in hurricane intensity / frequency is hotly contested. Existing time series are too short, methods of recording have evolved over time or are inconsistent between recording teams. Some regions of the world had - or still have - limited tracking facilities. When it comes to the evolution of hurricane intensity or frequency, "the jury is still out" as they say.

                    hurricane aftermath: flooding (and potential sanitation problems)

            A recent automated metastudy of satellite imagery using a consistent hurricane intensity algorithm only added fuel to the fire. Some regions, like the South-east USA, showed a definite increase over time in intensity of major storms while other regions showed either a slight decline or no detectable trend over time. Too early to judge if the trend is solid. Nevertheless, the money of the best computer climate modelers is on increased maximum hurricane intensity due to an observed (not theoretical) rise in sea temperature in hurricane breeding grounds (presumably due to human caused GW). Determining if hurricane frequency is changing - and changing how in the different categories of hurricane strength - is even dicier..

             Hurricane intensity and frequency turn out to be very important in a globally warming world for several reasons:

1- sea levels are rising globally, with few exceptions. These rises are observations, not theoretical deductions.

            Rising sea levels combined with increased storm surges from stronger 'canes with more precipitation makes an explosive mixture. Some areas are particularly prone to future catastrophic storm surge flooding: South-east USA, low lying areas of South and South-east Asia.. (see footnote 1)


2- Rising population pushes more people into at risk floodplains (India, Pakistan but also wealthy retiring baby boomers in Florida and other parts of South-east USA). Increased exposure to risk combined with more intense and / or more frequent storms provides another explosive mixture. One recent study focusing on the Caribbean nations concluded that without adaptive measures the cost of storm damage could rise from the present 4% GDP to 9% in 2030, more than double in a mere fifteen years!


3- Population increase is particularly pernicious because not only does it push more people into risky areas (flood, landslide..) but the increased density / number of people affected makes each major event more costly. This is another potentially explosive mixture and, for central governments, a politically destabilizing one favoring recourse to police state tactics..

            The world economy is not in great shape. The boom times are over, cheap oil is over: in the long run, shale oil is not viable below about $60 / barrel while tar sands (Alberta) require $70 - 90 / bbl for profitability. Can our world really afford increases in big storm disaster relief? Humanitarian relief programs (United Nations) are already cutting back on emergency relief (Lebanon, Sudan, Ethiopia, Haiti..) Think of the Middle East / North African refugee drama unfolding in Europe today (note 2). Yet GW promises much worse to come. GW's major effects rise from drought, storm and wind damage, storm surges, flooding and landslides. Even if the major country to be affected by potential increased hurricane intensity / frequency turns out to be the US, that country, with its deepening and polarizing economic inequities will become increasingly unable to handle its own increasing extreme weather costs and provide aid to rising humanitarian aid costs elsewhere. On the "deepening and polarizing economic inequities" in the US and their political blow back:


              However, as Mooney points out the jury is still out on CC / GW and  the future evolution of hurricane risk. Big 'canes (like Katrina - New Orleans - or Sandy - New York or Haiyan - the Philippines) have hit recently.  But is this "trend" a "real" one or just a random (or cyclic) variation due to natural causes? Hurricanes don't have the power to directly make a civilization collapse - as drought does - but they can add to our increasing burden of environmental woes. And this burden can indirectly trigger long term - potentially fatal - geopolitical tensions. CC-induced extreme weather, the ending of the Little Ice Age in Europe, did not "cause" the French Revolution but it was a (complex, multi-level) destabilizing influence.

                           Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines - Nov 8, 2013

             The potentially destabilizing effects of "small" rises in global temperature - of the order of 1 - 3 C - are ignored or scoffed at by GW "sceptics'" and deniers: "I'd like warmer winters." or "What difference does a measly 2 C make? It can vary by 50 C here between summer and winter." Tunnel vision can be comforting (if stupid)!


               Extreme weather events - generally linked to minor overall temperature excursions like the Little Ice Age (circa 1300 - 1850) - can have a potent (unsuspected and unpredictable) impact on world history. This impact has in part, been obscured by the affluence created by the era of cheap fossil fuel - now ending. 

               In the past, crop yields were much lower, transport was lousy (unless you lived along a river) and most of the population lived hand to mouth. A bad harvest - due to extreme weather in summer - would cause mass misery. Two bad harvests in a row would cause mass death, grain reserves having dropped to the minimal levels required for replanting after the first bad harvest. Generally, the second - and third - failed harvest in a row were the real killers.

                In Europe, the end of the Little Ice Age produced a period of climatic instability which resulted in minor localized demi-famines. The political unrest resulting played some (indeterminate) role in the French Revolution. Don't forget, this was the time of the Enlightenment: people's expectations of a better future were running high. King Louis payed with his head for the People's frustrations.. (See, for example, Simon Schama: Citizens, a chronicle of the French Revolution, Random House, 1989)

               The point here is that, in an already politically destabilizing USA, a wave of hurricane disasters could push the country over the edge - into what? One shudders to think - Trump again, and then there's those Right Wing militias..

               Several aspects of the CC / GW (pseudo-)debate are worth noting:

- Big Money speaks loud. The fossil fuel industry wants to stall green energy development in order to max out profits for their stockholders and overpaid CEOs as long as possible.


- The instrumentalization of religion for political ends. Religion has been hijacked to serve the CC denial movement. Thus we are presented with paradoxical (yet highly dogmatic) views concerning God's "will" for humanity's evolution

1- God will not let "christian" America "run out of anything" because God, in the Book of Genesis has made a pact (Covenant) with his followers. This pact, following the Jew's denial of Christ, has been transferred to one or more of the Christian sects. Some Americans, apparently, see themselves as a particularly virtuous nation and assume that the Covenant has now been transferred to the American nation in its entirety. Accordingly, no matter how stupidly Americans treat the environment, as long as America "does God's Will", God will mop up after their idiocies. Not an edifying view of God! I personally find it both sacrilegious for its moronic "morality" and blasphemous for its arrogant pretending to know God's will. 

willful blindness and fundamentalism 

2- Alternatively, God does not want to compensate for his worshippers' sinful ways. In this view, God actually wants to destroy the world. We are living the End Days. Those who try to "save the world" (environmental and social justice militants) are therefore serving Satan, The Master of This World. Following the internal logic of this Myth, in wrecking the planet's ecosytems we are merely doing what God wants done anyway..

Sierra Club - the agent of Antichrist 

The instrumentalism of science for political ends: Baconian Science versus Model (Hypothesis / Theory / Paradigm) driven Science. Francis Bacon, 1561 - 1626, an early theorist of scientific methodology, believed that knowledge of the physical world should be systematically collected and organized for "mankind's benefit". Scholars would be engaged to sift through the resultant "data base" searching for recurrent patterns (statistical correlations): "if event A occurs then B is likely to follow, 4 chances out of 5". Much traditional - and useful - medecine and weather lore is based on such empirical observation over the generations. People whose livelihood depended on the weather: farmers, fishermen, hunters, sailors, soldiers, professional travelers.. would expoit local regularities of climate and weather to their advantage. The word "local" is imperative: weatherlore (weather folklore) isn't based on atmospheric physics so can claim no universality. It simply encodes and memorizes useful local correlation between events to make life a bit easier and more profitable. Example: "red moon, rain within two days" provides useful information to fishermen even if no one understood that it was caused by approaching storm fronts kicking up dust which reddened light from the moon by scattering blue and violet light.

          Later, as science evolved, a deeper understanding of underlying physical mechanisms emerged and was embodied in mathematical and, more recently, computer models. This "type" of science has been dubbed Model (Paradigm / Hypothesis / Theory) driven science.  

          Over the last few centuries an academic - and fruitless - (pseudo-)"debate" has errputed from time to time within the philosophical and scientific communities over which brand of science - Baconian or Model driven - is "better". I personally have never been able to understand what the fuss was about (I'm not alone!) In reality, the modern Scientific Method cycles between Baconian and Model driven phases, requiring both to function

           When a new area of investigation opens up, data collection / organization is necessarily the prime activity (the Baconian phase). Once sufficient data is collected, scientists search for patterns, employing well established mathematical models of underlying physical processes to guide the search for patterns or to "understand" the observed patterns (correlations between events). One or more models (hypotheses, paradigms..) are then constructed to explain the observations. These models are then used to make predictions to test the models against physical reality. Predictions are tested in lab experiments (or for experiments too big for the lab, one seeks confirmation in Nature's lab, in observations of the physical environment). If observations confirm predictions, we say: "the theory is validated (confirmed,..)" - until it is invalidated by faulty predictions..

           When predictions don't match observations, we check if we have not made a simple computational or observational error, we verify the experimental set up, we repeat the experiment and ask others to do so. We compare notes. If the deviations from predcted values / outcomes persist we may be forced to:

- tweak minor aspects of the theory: include the friction of air in calculating the velocity of a projectile over time

- make substantial modifications to the mathematical model while retaining its core structure and assumptions: we still believe in Matter and Energy but after Einstein we know that one can be converted into the other

- in extreme cases we may have  to scrap the whole Model and start from scratch: early modern physicists believed that magnetism, electricity and heat were physical "fluids". We now know that the first two are a mysterious emmanation of matter - electromagnetism - while heat varies as the square of the average velocity of the atoms / molecules which a body is composed of

- in the limit, deviant observations may lead to the discovery of new, unsuspected phenomena, leading to a new cycle of Baconian (observational) science followed by model building, prediction and testing (Model driven phase)..

           "Real" science - as it is practiced today - is like a two man band saw: push - pull - push -pull.. Baconian observation - Model building and testing - Baconian oservation - Model building and testing..

               I conclude that the Baconian "versus" Model driven science debate is a pseudo-debate (not to mention abstruse, academic, pedantic, useless and boring..)

              What a surprise then - or is it? - that this pseudo-debate has been instrumentalized in the larger pseudo-debate over whether or not CC / GW is occuring. The fossil fuel lobby and Conservative Think Tanks discovered in meteorologist prof William Gray an inveterate and boisterous Baconian who, for whatever reasons, detested model-driven climate science and was willing to take the stage at any moment to denounce CC / GW as bad science. A true God-send! Gray played a major role in the controversy swirling around GW and hurricane science in the early years of the new millenium.
               For the Conservative Think Tanks who paid Gray's travelling expenses and honorariums, the issue was never philosophical or scientific truth but the instrumentalization of an academic pseudo-debate to discredit CC / GW science and the drive for alternative (carbon free) energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal, tidal power, energy efficiency, public transport, rail transport.. measures which would harm the bottom line of the fossil fuel megaliths, their clients, stockholders and CEOs.   

1- An important source on how serious CC / GW is becoming is the re-insurer, Swiss RE. Re-insurers are the insurance companies of insurance companies. They provide a "slush fund" into which their client companies can dip in case of extremely heavy payouts following major natural disasters. In its own interests Swiss RE, one of the biggest, has begun to take CC / GW science seriously and promotes CC adaptation measures to protect vital ecosystems and human infrastructure. 


 2- CC (drought) as a factor in the Syrian tragedy


CC / GW as "threat multiplier" in the geopolitical arena: