Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Capt. Louis Skrmetta didn't know what hit him in late August 2005. That weekend, as he was running a boatload of about 600 people out to Ship Island, The Weather Channel showed footage of a Category 2 hurricane called Katrina hitting the Florida peninsula.
Skrmetta, and much of the nation, were in for a surprise.
"This thing, this thing that came ashore—it wasn't natural. There was nothing earthly about this storm," Skrmetta rants. "Nothing at all."
Warm water is the engine of a hurricane, and plenty of warm water was sitting stagnant below the coast of Alabama. Katrina became a Category 5 storm almost overnight. When it took the beaches of Mississippi, the storm swell lifted things that had never been touched by seawater.
Scientists marveled. How did it happen? A number of weather watchers think they have the answer: warm water that has never consistently reached this temperature in this latitude before.
"You can't definitively connect any single weather event to global warming, but you can certainly connect trends to global warming. It's clear through observed, measurable data that hurricanes are becoming more powerful," says Mike Tidwell, who predicted the 2005 devastation in his 2003 book "Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast" (Vintage, $14.95).
"We know that over the last 30 years, wind speeds of the average hurricane in the Atlantic have doubled. We know that Category 4 and 5 hurricanes over the last 30 years have increased about 60 percent, and we know that increases in wind speed and numbers of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes correlate very closely to rises in sea surface temperatures."
James Elsner, director of the Hurricane Center at Florida State University, recently connected the dots between global warming and hurricane intensity in a report published in Geophysical Research Letters.
"It does certainly put the evidence in favor of a climate change hypothesis," Elsner says. "I think we're going to see stronger storms than we've had in the past. We'll see an increase in the number and intensity of various storms. Then, of course, there's always the chance that one of these will hit a major city."
Elsner's work piggybacks on the predictions of studies from sources like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicting that global temperatures may increase between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. NASA says that 2005 was the warmest year on record. The old record was another recent date: 1998. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center added still more concern, calculating that the first six months of 2006 were the hottest recorded in more than a century.
When the waters of the Gulf get as warm as blood, blood is what you'll get.
Critics of the link between global warming and storm strength still abound, however. Leaders of both NOAA and the National Hurricane Center have resisted any direct connection between climate change and stronger hurricanes. NOAA Chief Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher—a 2001 Bush appointee—denounced the Kyoto Protocol, while National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield denied the global warming link on "Face the Nation," referring to the 2005 onslaught of hurricanes as merely "cyclical."
U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., has yet to address climate change in his re-election platform, even as he brags that Congress is making good on a promise of $12 million in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts for the Pascagoula and Biloxi/Gulfport areas.
Gov. Haley Barbour flatly denied any correlation between global warming and Katrina, mere days after the storm flattened everything between the coast and Pass Christian.
"There is no connection," Barbour brusquely told the Jackson Free Press last year, which was all he had to say on the matter.
Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller says Barbour's opinion is fueled by ulterior motives.
"Hell, he's a lobbyist for one of the biggest creators of greenhouse gases in the world," Miller says. "Barbour was a lobbyist for Southern Company, which owns Mississippi Power, and his lobbying firm represents the utilities."
Looking to shake off expensive new standards, dirty coal-burning power companies banded together to form the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a lobby group employing a chain of heavy Republican experts, including Barbour and former White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray. Their work was not in vain. Bush put the hold on about 50 Clean Air Act lawsuits launched by the EPA against offending companies.
Politicians' indifference could get costly for them in the near future, warns Skrmetta, who believes last years' storm victims are fast becoming this year's desperate environmentalists.
"I'm very pissed off about the Republican Party," said Skrmetta, who largely votes Republican. "They're always talking about ending our dependency on foreign oil, yet every time a Democrat tries to add an amendment to raise fuel standards on the automotive industry, the Republicans vote it down."
Tidwell says society will go one of three ways in the next 10 years. It can either abandon its coastal cities, it can adapt to a costly future filled with massive sea-level rises and mammoth storms, or it can take the cheaper option: make a wholesale switch to clean energy and work to stabilize the climate.
The latter solution has at least one precedent:
"In 2001, the governor of California turned to the people and said, 'Please use less electricity,' and the people of California cut their use by 11 percent," Tidwell says.
"That was all voluntary, with no state statutes, mandates or economic carrots. Now imagine if we got serious and had statutory penalties and carrots. Imagine if we mandate that Detroit could only make cars that would get 50 to 100 miles to the gallon. If California can do it as an afterthought, just because the governor says please, imagine what we could do if we all got serious."