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Storm Warning

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Hurricane Katrina was only a warning shot.

While it is true that tropical storms and hurricanes have been laying waste to coastlands throughout recorded history, and that they will continue to do so forever, in the last century two critical factors changed, which may conspire to make the upcoming century one of unprecedented natural turmoil. First, the average temperature of the world’s oceans has increased by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit, and is still rising. Second, the government of the United States has decided that it is invincible.

These two factors are not independent. The government has expended considerable effort (and distorted many scientific studies) in order to avoid the short-term economic impact of a corrective reduction in greenhouse gases. Unwilling to admit to its mistakes and allow for this correction, the United States – along with a handful of other recalcitrant nations – permits the causes of global warming to perpetuate unchecked. But this short-term focus has blinded the United States to the larger economic, cultural and humanitarian costs of ignoring global warming.

Hurricanes are fueled by the evaporation of warm water, and ocean temperature is one of several critical factors influencing the frequency and severity of these cyclonic storms. New computer simulations from the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory predict that increased ocean temperatures consistent with what we expect from global warming will, over time, produce an upward shift in hurricane intensity. The model predicts fewer category 3 and low category 4 storms, and significantly more storms in the high category 4 through category 5 range.

In our politically and economically driven naivety, we have been acting under the faulty assumption that any change made to the global climate can be offset by some yet-undiscovered scientific or technological advancement, and that until such an achievement is made, we will be able to cope with any negative side-effects produced by the global weather system. But the earth’s oceans and atmosphere are not stable heat sinks of unlimited capacity, they are elements of a super-chaotic system that can barely be predicted, let alone controlled. As much as we do know now, we are still only beginning to understand the negative impacts of altering global temperatures.

The realities of the past week and a half have made us intensely aware of just how fragile our communities are, and just how unprepared the United States is for any large scale natural disaster. Being an isolated event, the intensity of Hurricane Katrina was not, in all likelihood, a product of global warming. However, over the next century, the ferocity of this storm will be equaled and surpassed many times by storms that are fueled by global warming.

We witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in Central America, and we saw the rage of a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Now the formerly great city of New Orleans and many adjacent communities have been savaged by natural forces, and we have finally tasted some of the death that other nations have known at the hand of nature for years. It is time for us to realize that we are not invincible, and that damage to the world’s weather system will hurt the United States as much, if not more, as any other nation. We must understand our own fragility.

It is true that the economic costs of reducing greenhouse gases enough to slow or reverse the process of global warming are nontrivial. However, these costs pale before the price, in money, in culture and history and in human life, that would have to be paid if the frequency of the most powerful hurricanes were to increase as much as the NOAA simulations predict.

No one wishes to see another Hurricane Katrina, for – at this moment – we are lucid to the fact that we are not ready to face the worst that nature can throw at us, and perhaps we never will be. Therefore we can no longer condone actions that risk altering the climate of the planet to the degree that storms like Katrina become commonplace.

We owe this much to the living survivors of Katrina and to the many dead: that we will always respect the forces that struck them; that we will understand the limits of our own power over nature; and if there is anything we can do to prevent a worsening of these natural disasters – including spending the money necessary to curb greenhouse emissions – we will do so.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. His column appears every other Wendnesday. He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.