Neuron Culture

A friend asked me the other day why he hadn’t heard more this year about the question of whether global warming was driving more and bigger hurricanes. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker suggests he’s just not reading the right papers. It brings a good round-up of how coverage on that question has shifted:

The debate over the effect of a warmer climate on tropical cyclones has undergone a nuanced shift in the last year or so, as illustrated in a brace of news stories today. The natural, first question was whether the world is seeing more hurricanes and their kin. That turns out to be complicated…. The new filip is whether, even if the total is not changing much, one ingredient for perfect storms – heat – is getting more potent. Thus if the recipe comes together in the mixing bowl just so, one gets a loftier, moister cake from the oven. Or, to hazard a more technical take, warmer sea surface temps seem to bring a larger tail toward the strong end in the distribution of storm strength if not numbers.

The Tracker then details a Nature story on this subject as well as a number of mainstream press treatments:

Wall Street Journal Dan Fitzpatrick, Alyssa Abkowitz put the numbers in plain English: worldwide the most intense tropical cyclones are bulking up by 4 mph per decade, and by 16 mph in the North Atlantic (Style Note: this just means N. of the equator – but “North Atlantic” may evokes for many readers the ocean off Greenland, icebergs, sinking Titanics, etc). A prominent quote is given to a hurricane fan but global change skeptic, William Gray, who says the authors might be playing games with data ; NY Times Kenneth ChangSF Chronicle David Perlman puts “probably aided by global warming” in his lede, and follows up with the lead scientist calling Katrina and Gustav “a harbinger of things to come” ; Houston Chronicle Eric Berger stresses that the report relies entirely on satellite images less likely to be skewed than are reports from ships or on land ; USA Today Doyle Rice writes flatly that the shift is due to global warming ; Christian Science Monitor Eoin O’Carroll has an odd line: “at the same time the intensity of weaker storms has not increased.” Ken Chang’s story from NYT, listed above, says it similarly. Hurricanes are categorized by wind speed. Is this like saying the weight of people between 110 and 120 pounds has not changed? That is, if weaker storms did intensify much they’d no longer be weaker storms. Maybe it means the numbers in the weaker categories are not up due to any overall shift of distribution toward the muscular side. (Late Addition – it’s by quantile so it makes sense, and for which I’ve added the plot above) ; LiveScience Andrea Thompson ; BBC Richard Black ; Reuters Deborah Zabarenko ; Telegraph (UK) Roger Highfield follows his talent for making clear how news effects readers. It is not hurricane intensity that’s up in his telling, but their ability to cause devastation ; Science News Sid Perkins gathers pithy quotes from other top people in the field, including this one: “category 2 and 3 storms in the 1950s are now category 4 and 5 storms” ; AAAS ScienceNOW Richard A. Kerr finds an authority to say this study is a big advance ; Sarasota Herald Tribune Anna Scott; Talahassee Democrat Angeline J. Taylor

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