By Ernest Corea*
WASHINGTON DC - Goodbye, Irene. Other tempests, too, will straddle parts of the U.S. during the 2011 hurricane season which, as usual, began in June and will run through the end of November. But Irene, though gone, is not forgotten.
Many cannot forget how Irene took away precious lives, destroyed homes, plans and livelihoods. Others remember it for their fearful moments of anticipation when they followed its every move and wondered whether it would affect and alter their lives. Some remember it for the dislocation of their holiday plans by the enforced evacuation of potential hurricane victims from perceived danger zones.
On top of the grim memories, perplexing questions arise, despite the "let's all look the other way" approach of science-deniers, as to whether and how climate change affects weather patterns including the intensity of hurricanes. (Their intensity determines their destructiveness.)
A great deal of scientific research has been conducted and continues to be undertaken on the impact of climate change, and on the economic consequences that might follow. As research continues, more knowledge is forthcoming, enabling private citizens and policy makers to reach informed decisions.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently compiled a summary of key items that included the following:
-- Sea levels are rising and allowing storms to reach further inland and damage property. As sea levels rise due to climate change, storms – including hurricanes – have a higher “jumping off point” when they hit land and are able to penetrate further inland before they dissipate, posing greater risks to roads and buildings.
-- Sea levels are expected to rise as the ocean warms and expands and as land-based glaciers and ice sheets rapidly shrink. One recent study estimates that total sea-level rise by the end of the century could be between 2.5 feet and 6.6 feet, though scientists consider the worst-case scenario less likely.
-- Warmer air increases the chance for more intense precipitation that can drive flooding. Since 1958, the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest one percent of storms has risen nearly 20 percent on average in the U.S.
On the specific question of how climate change affects hurricanes, the UCS responded: "The short answer is that global warming makes the ocean warmer and increases sea surface temperatures, which can make hurricanes stronger. But several factors, including differences in wind speed and direction, can break up hurricanes. Many future projections show a decrease in the frequency of all hurricanes globally, but a higher chance of intense hurricanes forming when they do occur. The changing nature of hurricanes in a warmer world remains an active area of research."
To recap briefly: A hurricane is defined as "a type of tropical cyclone, which is a generic term for a low pressure system that generally forms in the tropics. The cyclone is accompanied by thunderstorms and, in the Northern Hemisphere, a counterclockwise circulation of winds near the earth's surface."
Hurricanes range from Category 1 with the lowest wind speeds to Category 5, the highest. Hurricanes are also known as typhoons, based on their geographic location. "If a storm was to form in the Atlantic or eastern Pacific Ocean, we would call it a hurricane," says one explanation, adding that "a typhoon is generally any storm that begins in the Western Pacific."
More than one hurricane could form within the same, broad geographic area. Hurricanes are therefore given specific names, so that each might be easily identified by those observing their course and calculating where they might make landfall, and by others likely to be affected by them. Australian Charles Wragge is credited with being the first weatherman to have identified hurricanes by name, as early as in the 19th century.
Wragge, say the history books, initially named hurricanes after figures from Greek mythology. In what is considered a typically Australian change of pace he later named them after politicians and was seriously able to say: (Name of politician) is "wandering aimlessly about…." and "causing great distress.” Contemporary weathermen might want to check out how it sounds – just as a trial – if they substitute a local politician’s name.
Today, hurricanes are named from a list maintained by the World Meteorological Organization. The names alternate between traditionally male and female. The names of hurricanes that cause particularly heavy damage and loss of life are usually eliminated from the list so that they will not be applied to storms of the future.
Many will be happy to know that Katrina and Irene will not reappear as the names of future hurricanes.
Irene, whose destructive path began near the Bahamas, wreaked its damage on a swath of coastal states in the U.S. from North Carolina to Maine, and then on to parts of Canada.
The worst affected states were North Carolina (6 hurricane-related deaths), Virginia (4), Maryland (3), Delaware (2), Pennsylvania (5), New Jersey (7), New York (10), Vermont (3, plus 2 missing), New Hampshire (1), Maine (2). That’s a total of 43 known deaths, a figure that could rise when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) completes its assessments and accounting.
Floods caused the greatest devastation. Roads and bridges were washed away, and homes were demolished.
Overnight, individuals and families realised that their homes, in most cases with mortgage-based loans not fully paid, had been splintered into matchstick-like remnants, their belongings lifted into the skies and deposited goodness knows where.
The reaction of most hurricane victims was captured by a distraught woman who looked into a television camera, her eyes glazed over with sorrow, and said: "I now have nothing, nothing."
Over three million people were without power to light their homes or provide facilities for cooking. Many consumers were informed by their suppliers that it would take at least two weeks before power could be restored. Inter-state travel came to a halt as major airports were closed in almost every state affected. Over 11,000 flights were cancelled. Public and private road transport within the affected areas came to a halt as well.
FEMA, already by an inadequate budget, now faces the challenge of having to support and augment the efforts of the states concerned in recovering from hurricane-related damage. Total costs of recovery could be as high as $20 billion.
In this grave situation, the (Republican) majority leader in the House of Representatives insisted that funds expended on hurricane damage recovery should be matched by cuts in other programs.
That's like telling a cancer patient: "Yes, Medicare (the state supported health insurance program) will pay for your drugs, but the amounts involved will be deducted from your Social Security (pension) payments." How crass can politicians become in moments of human tragedy?
The squabble has continued in Congress where the House of Representatives is rooting for a lesser amount than the Senate supports as an urgent transfusion to FEMA so that its funds do not run dry before the end of the current financial year on September 30.
As Irene's immediate impact wound down, and people had more time to spend of reflection, a question that has surfaced with some anxiety is: did ubiquitous meteorologists, presented with opportunities for their moments of fame, and anxious to demonstrate their professional acumen, overdo their warnings. The media too has come in for its share of criticism, for having allegedly over-hyped their reports in an effort to outdo their rivals in round-the-clock news coverage.
The question about weather forecasters is based partly on the fact that they have and continue to make some serious bloopers, thus raising doubts about their credibility.
In Canada's capital, Ottawa, for instance, a weather forecaster broadcast his entire segment of the day's news while standing in a dry studio, holding an umbrella over his head.
He had forecast that the skies would open and rains would pour down that day. As it happened, Ottawa experienced a gorgeous Fall day, with crisp air, bright sunshine, and skies whose brilliant blue expanse was broken only by a straggling handful of clouds. His umbrella performance was by way of showing remorse.
Mistakes can be made because, as meteorologists like to say, it takes only a fluttering of a butterfly’s wings to change a weather pattern, but forecasting capacities have developed enormously down the years.
Most weathermen and women are qualified and experienced meteorologists who take their profession very seriously. They are supported by vast changes in communications technology and instrumentation. On what basis should they not share this knowledge with people most likely to be affected by ferocious changes in the weather? The same goes for the media – despite the lowering of standards caused by frenetic competition.
Custodians of knowledge that needs to be in the public domain have a responsibility to share that knowledge as widely as possible. The same principle applies to discourse on climate change and its impact on hurricanes as well as other weather patterns.
The insured value of property along Irene's tumultuous route from North Carolina to Maine is estimated to be in the region of $4.9 trillion. That comes on top of the deaths, heartbreak, and misery that Irene set off.
The possibility that climate change will result in more intense hurricanes, causing similar loss of life and property damage make the overall situation too serious to be forgotten as memories of Irene recede.
Climate change-sceptics will claim that this was a "one off" experience and will be repeated, if at all, years hence. The scientific evidence is to compelling to be ignored.
So, consider this: Policies and practices that can mitigate the effects of climate change – including energy efficiency measures, and the use of renewable energy – have potentially long-lasting benefits. Their introduction will diminish the future intensity of hurricanes and create peace of mind. Why is nobody listening?
*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.