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Storm World Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming Chris Mooney Harcourt: 392 pp., $26

July 15, 2007|Thomas Hayden | Thomas Hayden writes about science, medicine and culture. He is the author, with Richard Jadick, of "On Call in Hell: A Doctor's Iraq War Story."

NOV. 30 marks the end of the North Atlantic hurricane season each year, and 2005 was expected to be no different. But that was the year of Katrina, a year that broke all the rules. There were more nameable storms (28, of which a record 15 became hurricanes); a record four Category 5 hurricanes (those with winds in excess of 155 miles per hour); and the most powerful Atlantic hurricane (Wilma) ever recorded -- and of course there was Katrina, the most expensive natural disaster in American history.

While officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami were delivering their end-of-season remarks on Nov. 29 that year, the forecasters behind them were still hard at work. There were so many storms that meteorologists had run out of proper names for them and had begun using Greek letters instead. Hurricane Epsilon was just getting started, and Tropical Storm Zeta would eventually push the 2005 season clear into 2006. That epic year of record-breaking storms and overworked scientists lays the foundation for Chris Mooney's "Storm World." But it's the future of hurricanes, not the past, that gives the book its ominous tone. 2005 was also the year that many scientists started taking seriously the proposition that global warming could make hurricanes far worse than they are today -- more powerful, longer lasting and perhaps more frequent -- and that the 2005 season was just a taste of things to come.

The connection between hurricane strength and global warming is a real, although still hypothetical, possibility. Given that Mooney is a journalist (Washington correspondent for the science magazine Seed), readers might expect him to hype the hypothesis and zero in on worst-case scenarios as he explores hurricane science. The title of his previous book, "The Republican War on Science," suggests a bias in his discussion of the politics and polemics of global warming. And because his mother's house in New Orleans was trashed by Katrina, he could be forgiven for being just plain angry and looking to lay blame. But Mooney avoids these pitfalls, delivering a balanced look at the history and current state of climate and weather science and the attendant politics -- including sometimes brutal scientific infighting.

Hurricanes are by far the most powerful storms on the planet, and they easily outdo wildfires, volcanoes and even earthquakes in sheer destructive force. They're also remarkably complex meteorological phenomena; only recently have scientists begun to truly understand how they work. Radar imaging and "hurricane hunter" flights into the storms, starting in the 1940s, helped; satellite observations, starting in the 1960s, helped even more. With a few more storms and a few more years, computer simulations may help most of all. There are plenty of questions left. For instance, how are these super storms born, and why do some rapidly gain or lose energy while others simply chug along? And therein lies the problem: How do you predict the future of something you don't fully understand?

The basic case for global warming leading to worse hurricanes goes like this: Hurricanes need warm water to form; all other environmental factors (and there are plenty) being equal, warmer water should mean stronger hurricanes. The world's oceans are heating up, human activity almost certainly being the cause. Add several recent studies indicating an increase in the most powerful hurricanes over the last few decades, and you've got a hot, if not quite smoking, gun.

But you've also got counterarguments: among them that the effect of rising sea-surface temperatures is likely to be balanced by other factors; that natural climate cycles may account for the recent run of bad years in the North Atlantic; and that we don't have enough information about the number and power of past hurricanes to say for sure whether today's storms are worse than before. The science of hurricane-climate interactions is uncertain enough that even the most critical listener can be swayed by one side's arguments, then the other's.

Mooney deftly handles all this complexity, arguing that although global warming will certainly affect hurricanes and may already be doing so, it's not nearly so certain exactly how the storms will change, nor to what extent. He makes a compelling case, however, that imperfect knowledge is no reason to put off combating global warming (there are lots of other, better understood negative consequences) or shoring up our coastal defenses. Even without stronger storms, our growing hurricane-belt communities are painfully vulnerable. "[T]he truth is that in the end, we never know everything, and we never will," he concludes. "There is only evidence and the various lenses through which it's interpreted. And then there's action and inaction -- both of which have consequences."

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