Hurricanes and the Gulf Coast: Climate Change and Sustainable Rebuilding

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A June 2006 report from an interdisciplinary conference of experts convened by the American Geophysical Union to discuss what scientists know about the present and projected environment in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast areas affected by the hurricanes of 2005 concluded:  “There are strong theoretical reasons to expect that warming of the oceans already has led to more intense hurricanes and will continue to affect tropical storm characteristics. Planning should take into account the strong probability of more frequent and more intense hurricanes.”

From the editorial “Science Should Inform Sustainable Rebuilding,” in the June 20 issue of EOS, the newspaper of the Earth and space sciences, published by the AGU (by subscription):

Science will not provide the only decision criteria.  Other factors such as economic and social issues will also be considerations.  Yet science must play its appointed part, and we, as citizens, must also hold our elected officials accountable if they ignore or misconstrue the best scientific understanding of the problem.

Bravo. Just what we’ve been saying.

From the June 2006 report “Hurricanes and the U.S. Gulf Coast: Science and Sustainable Rebuilding,” which is available on the web site of the American Geophysical Union (the association of Earth and space scientists):

As a step toward developing a scientific basis for safer communities along the Florida-Alabama-Mississippi-Louisiana-Texas coastline, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) convened an interdisciplinary Conference of Experts on 11-12 January 2006 to discuss what we, as Earth and space scientists, know about the present and projected environment in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast areas affected by the hurricanes of 2005. Twenty scientists, all experts in the fields of science relevant to the Gulf Coast, met to consider ideas for a coordinated effort to integrate science into the decision-making processes necessary for the area’s sustainable rebirth. Political, economic, and social issues were intentionally not discussed. Nevertheless, it was recognized that science and these issues are intertwined and of paramount importance.

The objectives of the meeting were to review and assess the scientific knowledge in the areas most relevant in hurricane protection, to identify gaps in knowledge that could be filled by focused research, and to propose mechanisms to link science to the most effective reconstruction of New Orleans and other coastal areas affected by the recent hurricanes. The meeting attendees considered seven topics addressing the current understanding, near-term needs, and longer-term directions for: hurricanes, storm surge and flooding, subsidence, climate change, hydrology, infrastructure, and disaster preparedness and response.

The report’s discussion of climate change concluded:

There are strong theoretical reasons to expect that warming of the oceans already has led to more intense hurricanes and will continue to affect tropical storm characteristics. Increasing ocean temperatures also cause sea level to rise due to thermal expansion and thus enhance storm surge. It is well established that a sea surface temperature of at least 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit) is required for hurricane formation. Recent analyses have found that the frequency of intense hurricanes and severe rainfall has increased in recent decades. Hurricane strength and numbers are projected to increase further with rising ocean temperatures. The hurricane climatology of the 21st century will be quite different from that of the twentieth century. Planning should take into account the strong probability of more frequent and more intense hurricanes.

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