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Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Ride Out the Storm
Yesterday I sent you to read Diplomad's account of the incubation of global warming at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and indicated I would continue the story by telling you of it's viral spread through the United States. Here you say "What the heck are you, Greyhawk, a GI in Iraq, going to tell us about Global Warming?" Glad you asked.
Even though it often seems like it, I wasn't always in Iraq. In fact, through most of the middle 1990's I was fortunate to be stationed at a military installation on the coast of Florida - Eglin Air Force Base, to be specific, certainly one of the finest military posts in the world. But being on the coast there was a little problem with hurricanes. Yours truly was a member of the hurricane rideout team, a small group of individuals who would shelter on base during any hurricane while saner folks sought higher ground - the theory being that we might survive and begin immediate recovery procedures once the winds died down to something that wouldn't create damage resembling nuclear devastation. Recall that Hurricane Andrew had destroyed Homestead Air Force Base and much of Miami in the early part of the decade and you'll appreciate just how seriously we viewed the task.
In that capacity I found myself at the 16th Annual National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans, LA in 1994. This conference draws city managers, disaster preparedness folks, first-responder types, power company reps, insurance agency people, legal eagles, meteorologists, university and government researchers, the military, and of course a legion of vendors offering products that will improve your chances of surviving a hurricane or recovering from same.
Military folks showing up at such conventions are often seen as some alien life form, this in spite of the fact that a large majority of attendees are in some form of government service. Many of these folks are veterans, of course, so the distancing is not universal, but it is noticeable. This has absolutely nothing to do with my story, but it puts you into my frame of mind at such events: ghostly observer floating around taking mental notes of the goings-on. Likewise much of the real purpose of these things is for reps to meet vendors and lay the groundwork for possible mutually beneficial deals and as I wasn't attending as any sort of purchasing agent or contracting official I couldn't play that game either. I had a wonderful time wandering about the exhibits and popping in and out of sessions, not to mention after hours wandering in the French Quarter, which was perhaps surprisingly empty given that a fairly large convention was ongoing. Or perhaps not surprising - maybe it was the quaint smell of vomit and filth, maybe the 4-dollar beer in tiny cups (1994 dollars, of course, which was even more considering my 1994 pay) - but I digress.
The whole thing was capped off by THE SPEECH from Dr William Gray. Dr Gray is a fine man and a highly respected Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University. When you hear about the forecast of the number of Atlantic hurricanes expected in the upcoming year you are hearing the result of the work of Dr Gray, and each National Hurricane Conference ends with THE SPEECH from Dr Gray (disclaimer: I'm not sure whether this tradition continues but it was certainly the case 'back in the day') wherein he announces his latest prediction.
I was familiar with Dr Gray's work before attending the conference, I respect his efforts tremendously and likewise value his forecast. But I was caught off guard (warning: confession of my own naiveté follows) as he approached the end of his speech and noted the disparity in funding for hurricane research and earthquake research, with a definite call for increase in monies for hurricane studies. Looking around the room at the various media types gathered - Dr Gray's prediction is worth a day's headlines in America's hurricane coast - the light bulb came on over my head. Funding, baby - it's all about the funding. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that; next time a hurricane strikes a country without a modern meteorological service and a basic communications infrastructure note the death toll.
But here's the essence of the light bulb that flashed over my head at that moment. You see, much university level research (and thus much research done in the US) must be funded. And if it's something like meteorology, for which advancements in pure science don't translate well into huge corporate profits when compared to many other fields, then it's up to Uncle Sam to keep a steady cash flow going your way. And if you want that cash flow maximized, it might help to try convincing someone that if you aren't fully funded then people will die! (Here - give it a try.)
Now this "people will die" aspect is true when it comes to hurricane research, but hearing it in the context I did was a real eye-opener. Here's coverage of essentially the same speech delivered a couple years later:
The 1995 hurricane season - the busiest in 60 years - should not be considered a fluke, the nation's leading hurricane forecaster said Friday. Instead, William Gray warned, it may be a blueprint for the future.
``I think there may be trouble in the future,'' Gray told the closing session of the 18th annual National Hurricane Conference. He said people don't realize how few hurricanes have hit the Atlantic coast in the past quarter-century.
Gray said there is mounting evidence that global climate changes will cause a return to busier hurricane seasons, like those of the late 1940s, the 1950s and the early 1960s.
Forty-one hurricanes hit the mainland of the United States from 1940 through 1959, according to the National Hurricane Center in Tallahassee, Fla. In 1995, there were 11 hurricanes, five of which struck the U.S. mainland.
``We've been in this lull, this natural climate lull, that appears to be driven by the ocean circulations,'' Gray said. ``And that likely will be changing. And if it changes, we're going to see more landfalling category 3, 4 or 5 storms,'' the most powerful of hurricanes.
Gray, a Colorado State University professor of atmospheric sciences, fears that governments and coastal residents are ill-prepared for an extended period of heavy hurricane activity, an increase that could last for decades.
``Ominous things could be happening in terms of hurricane-spawned damage,'' Gray said. He noted that coastlines today are nothing like they were in the years soon after World War II. They have been built up dramatically, becoming home to millions.
Gray, forecasting for the season ahead, called for money to finance a national hurricane response program.
``I understand the earthquake people have a $50 million to $60 million -a-year program,'' he said. ``Well, we need it more!'' Gray said. His remarks drew strong applause from among the 1,500 conference participants.
``Hurricanes have killed more people and done about three to five times more damage than the earthquakes,'' Gray said. ``But the earthquake people get more money. How is that so?''
It's completely practical and absolutely essential; given the platform and the spotlight Dr Gray would be almost criminally negligent not to make the pitch for additional funding for hurricane research. And I came away from that conference thinking this: "You know the problem with meteorologists is that other than hurricanes and tornadoes they just don't have enough big sexy stuff that could be considered life-or-death important and really rake in the big research bucks."
Of course, I hadn't heard much about Global Warming yet.
And that concludes part one of our story.
Thanks for your comments about funding issues with hurricane research. I live on the coast of NC and years ago stopped reading the headlines and forecasts each spring. I am a retired bureaucrat and recognized that a good bit of the hype has to do with funding. It's all a game. I've been through a number of hurricanes, Bertha, Bonnie, Fran, Floyd, were direct hits on the barrier island where I live. I keep up with the National Hurricane Center, avoid the Weather Channel and have learned to slough friends' hysteria along about April of each year. Thanks for a great website. Found you recently and now visit every day.Posted by Barbara at February 2, 2005 12:36 AM
After seeing the eye of 3 this year, I'm all about the warnings. I've always taken them seriously. I've only lived down here 10 years, but for every warning (even tropical storms) I do the "preparation". Most definetly.
Now the secret is for folks to listen.
I also think it's gonna be a rough couple of years (to say the least). I know I'm gonna buckle up!!Posted by Tammi at February 2, 2005 05:19 AM
If you think meteorology is tough, try climatology or worse yet planetary climatology. Heck, you might even have to invent "Nuclear Winter" and do a little disinformation campaign with the USSR!Posted by Machias Privateer at February 2, 2005 04:05 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(3) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)