Storm World

I’ve been reading Chris Mooney’s Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming for the last week or so, and I’ve got to say, this is excellent science writing. A book on science for the non-expert reader should accomplish 5 things. It should let you know the history of the field and its prevailing theories, it should give you background and explanations that allow you to attain a basic grasp of the science or key concepts, it should be well-written, it should make you care about the subject, and it should be entertaining. Mooney gets a 5/5. It also was highly entertaining to me, because in the course of the development of hurricane science there have been lots of examples of downright cranky behavior, as innovators who developed key ideas would refuse to relinquish them in the face of new data and observations. Mooney casts the debate in terms of two camps, which are broadly, the empiricists vs. the theorists, each of which throughout the history of the science have had better or worse luck explaining the data and accepting changes in the field.

One should also read the preface and introduction of the book, which sets the non-alarmist/non-polemic tone and really makes you care about learning the subject right of the bat. Mooney writes:

At the outset, let me offer a critical point of clarification: Global warming did not cause Hurricane Katrina, or any other weather disaster. Or to put it more precisely, we just can’t say scientifically that global warming either does or not “cause” individual weather events.

This is exactly correct. Global warming may make certain weather events more or less likely, but it’s impossible to say with certainty whether or not an individual event is an outlier or part of a trend. But with hurricanes, it’s particularly important to know if we’re causing a trend:

Hurricane damage doesn’t simply increase linearly with increasing wind speed; rather it goes up much more steeply, in part because damaged structures (for example, the roof torn off a house) become missiles flung into other structures. It has been estimated that a land-falling Category 4 or 5 hurricane, with a maximum sustained winds greater than 131 miles per hour, causes 64 times as much destruction as a a Category 1 storm (winds from 74 to 95 mph) and 256 times as much as a mere tropical storm (winds up to and including 73mph). Emanuel was telling his audience that we’re helping transform more and more hurricanes into monstrous city-smashers. If true, the discovery would rank as one of the most dramatic manifestations yet of human-caused global warming–and perhaps the most terrifying.

Mooney goes on to describe the early history of storm science to how it is practiced today. From the relatively recent discovery of hurricanes as vortexes of extreme winds from multiple observations of the same storm – only possible within the last couple of centuries – to the modern practices of hurricane flights, satellite imaging and map-reading that has allowed meteorologists to predict the direction and power of storms with some accuracy. It’s a fascinating story, and one of the most helpful things to learn in a field is where it came from – with few exceptions I think this is something you learn by word-of-mouth from your professors so you’re lucky if you get an accurate or unbiased version. Most helpfully, he describes exactly how hurricanes are thought to form, how they build, strengthen and redistribute thermal energy, and the initial conditions required to spur their formation. Simply (let’s test my reading comprehension), you need a tropical depression, the Coriolis force, geographic “basins” and seed winds to get them spinning, and of course, heat in the form of warm water surface temperature. The reason these storms form in the hot months of the year is that there is a required sea surface temperature for their formation – about 26 to 27 degrees. It becomes obvious then, that as global average temperature increases, the likelihood of storm formation would increase – hence the concern about the link between global warming and increased hurricane activity.

There is currently a conflict in the field, which Mooney attributes to disagreements between empiricists like Bill Gray, and theoreticians and modelers like Kerry Emanuel. The reasons for this hostility are the same ones you see over and over again in science. For one, early modeling was oversimplified and might have actually retarded hurricane research by sending researchers down the wrong direction (at the same time Gray’s career was ramping up – probably creating a long-term enmity), and the crankiness of older scientists who get set in their ways. I’ve got to say, in this particular dispute, it’s Gray, the senior scientist who denies anthropogenic global warming, who comes across as, well, cranky. Pretty much anyone in science knows who this guy is in their particular field, it is by no means a rare phenomenon.

What made this more painful than funny is that Gray had fallen out with many scientists who had once been peers and friends. Shortly before we met, the Wall Street Journal had run a front-page story about how combative the debate had become between Gray and Emmanuel, Holland, and other researchers supportive of a hurricane-climate link. What really incensed the other scientists was that Gray would hurl ad hominem attacks and question their qualifications and motives, sometimes implying they had cooked up their results to secure future research funding

A classic example of the tired funding conspiracy attack. And there’s his use of classic AGW denialist arguments:

“Global cooling” is thus something of a canard, but it’s one that climate skeptics like Gray enjoy making endless hay of.

Finally, an example of possible crank magnetism:

He couldn’t deliver enough praise for Michael Crichton, author of the thinly veiled anti-global warming novel State of Fear and Gray’s new hero.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Gray is clearly an excellent scientist in his own right, and Mooney is more than fair to his point of view, but I just couldn’t help thinking that it’s yet another example of the old-guard mentality that you see some emeritus professors get. Gray is clearly responsible for much of the techniques that have made forecasting and understanding of hurricanes possible, but his suspicion of computer modeling ends up making him highly irrational. His ideas about the thermohaline circulation being responsible for global cycles seems particularly weak, as even I know that the cycle is still hardly understood, with only recent attempts at measurement, and it seems strange to me at least put so much stake in the circulating currents as the main factor in climate. Hopefully he won’t move the goalpost in 5 more years, which is when he predicts that the circulation will cause a global cooling.

By about Chapter 5 the hard-core denialists show up, including Patrick Michaels, Robert Balling, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, even the TCSDaily, and Storm World turns into a page-turner.

This book is great, and I feel far more informed about this aspect of the Global Warming Debate. Mooney is fair to all sides without being credulous or biased towards any side except that which best fits the data. Based on his book and other publications, I’m still not convinced that increased hurricane activity we saw in 2005 was due to global warming. As Mooney repeats throughout the book, it’s something of an impossible statement to make with any kind of certainty. Certainly the theoretical possibility of increased hurricane intensity is suggested by the science, and the problem of anthropogenic global warming is real, it’s just a matter of time before we’ve collected enough data to be sure of a real effect. Being a cautious person, I’d rather not be inside the test tube for this particular experiment.

I can highly recommend Storm World to all, and I hope people read it – not to gain converts but merely to inform the debate. It’s the kind of reporting you hope for in areas of contentious science, no matter which side you’re on.


  1. Great review. I can’t wait to check the book out of my local library. Your bit about ageing cranks reminds of Naomi Oreskes’ recent work on how we know we’re not wrong about human-caused climate change. According to Oreskes, even after plate tectonics was overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific fraternity in the 1960s, there were still some scientists who refused to believe it, including a one-time science adviser to Presidents Johnson and Nixon who wouldn’t budge on the matter even up to his death in 2002.

  2. Thanks for posting the review!

    I was a little disappointed when I saw Mooney and Nisbet in person at a talk about Framing, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be disappointed with the new book too. I’m glad to hear that it’s interesting and well-done.

  3. Chris Mooney

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your reaction to the book. I’m so glad you liked it.

    Bill Gray came to my talk yesterday in Boulder, CO, and we had a friendly disagreement over the funding issue, which I relate here.

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