Storm World

Everyone admires hurricanes, however grudgingly. When I hear someone described as “a force of nature,” I envision a hurricane’s hundred mile winds and waves whipped to such a frenzy that they merge with the air. The calm at the eye of the storm, the destructive potential, and the courage of the brave pilots and scientists who fly right through the walls of rain and cloud are the stone from which legends are carved. Of course, when that implacable power reaches our shores, admiration is in short supply, replaced by Job-like anger and despair. In Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, New Orleans-native Chris Mooney tangles with these emotions, and the history, science and politics of hurricanes and the current debate over the effect of global warming on those storms.

Regular readers know that I was a big fan of Chris Mooney’s first book, The Republican War on Science. I keep in close at hand as an encyclopedic reference to the political abuses of science we’ve seen over recent years. Readers of that book will not be on unfamiliar ground in his latest book, but will find themselves surprised by the differences.

Storm World is not a polemic. Where the previous book introduced just enough scientific context to clarify why, for instance, it was wrong of certain Democrats to link particular hurricanes to global warming, or for many more Republicans to deny that climate change is under way, Storm World is a book about the science, touching on politics only when the political abuses of the science demand a response. The chapter about NOAA’s muzzling of its climate scientists reads like a chapter from RWoS, and picks up some of that book’s more passionate writing style.

Storm World is no less passionate, but its subject requires a more staid approach. Mooney describes how the links between hurricanes and global warming have been debated and how a scientific consensus about those links has grown, and reports that science in the best possible way. Where science reporting can often emphasize the most recent research, whipping from conclusive result A to seemingly contradictory result B ? acting as if each result finally answers the questions scientists have debated for the last century or two ? Mooney’s book is an exploration of the messy process by which scientific consensus is built, illustrating along the way why such consensus is so important.

He sets the stage with an historical overview of meteorology and the early days of hurricane science. In the 19th century, meteorologists fought pitched battles over the process driving hurricanes. On one hand, a group that purported to approach data without any preconceived theories made fairly accurate descriptions of how hurricanes moved, and offered suggestions to navigators about safely navigating around the storms. They ultimately rooted their descriptions in a bogus theory linking whirlwinds and whirlpools by envisioning tides in the atmosphere stirring things up. Opposed to them, a camp with a mathematical and theoretical focus proposed that air was heated by the oceans, rose, and drew the surrounding air in along straight lines, producing a fairly accurate account of how hurricanes actually are driven, but wrongly insisting that hurricane winds follow straight lines in toward the center, rather than the iconic curved patterns we now see.

This split between empiricists and theoreticians is commonplace in the sciences. Mathematicians consider physicists somewhat impure for dealing with actual particles, while physicists think mathematicians are eggheads. Engineers think physicists are nerds, and physicists marvel at engineer’s lack of interest in the underlying theoretical structure. Those differences in approach rarely blow up into pitched battles in public, as it did with the American Storm Controversy, so the reading public may only be vaguely aware of the similar tensions that exist in all fields.

The American Storm Controversy, which ultimately drew in European scientists and raged past the death of at least one of its originators, serves as an introduction to the dynamics of scientific fights. While the players are different, the approaches to meteorology established in that episode remain distinct, with empiricists rejecting theory unless it arrives data in hand, and theoretical modelers insisting that the data be explained by reference to a testable underlying model. At one point, contrarians Bill Gray and Chris Landsea attack a paper by asking “Should we trust models or observations?” The modelers, Thomas Knutson and Robert Tuleya, responded, “unfortunately, observations of the future are not available at this time.”

Money does well at explaining the scientific basis of various hypotheses as they are proposed and tested, but his focus is on the sociological aspect of this debate. We all know how the scientific method is described in textbooks, but the actual practice is easily complicated by human biases. Mooney regularly refers to Arthur C. Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” How scientists navigate those social complications is a fascinating tale, and Mooney shows us how they moved from having an incorrect model of hurricane formation in the 1980s to building a consensus behind the current “heat pump” model, and then pushing towards a consensus that that model means warmer sea surfaces must produce stronger hurricanes.

New scientific data, and the interplay with events in the Atlantic and the Gulf, especially New Orleans, certainly play a role. So does government interference with scientists, and the shift of students out from their mentors’ shadows. We see that scientific disagreements do not end with a bang or polite handshakes, but with new questions and new disagreements. What begins as a dispute over the merits of modeling, the forces driving hurricane strength and the future of hurricane dynamics ends with a debate over the best ways to reconstruct the historical record of hurricane strengths, and whether we are already seeing the effects of climate change in hurricanes.

Mooney deserves special praise for capturing the dynamic of scientific debate, humanizing the scientific process and inviting the public in to see how things work in a field they care about desperately.

There are, of course, quibbles. He describes Charles Darwin as an empiricist who believed one shouldn’t theorize before gathering facts, a claim that is, at best, debatable. For instance, Darwin wrote to Wallace, “I am a firm believer that, without speculation there is no good & original observation,” a decidely un-Baconian comment, but very true. On a more substantive note, I was surprised that the 2006 WMO consensus statement was only mentioned briefly in the text. That statement, which includes the agreement that “it is likely that some increase in tropical cyclone peak wind-speed and rainfall will occur if the climate continues to warm,” is included in an appendix, but it seems like the machinations involved in organizing that conference and hammering out the points of agreement would provide a satisfying conclusion to the book. It’s possible that the conference took place too late for Mooney to report on it more fully. Since I opened the book expecting it would end with that conference, I came away feeling jilted.

Most readers will not come to the book with that expectation. They will get a book that is scientifically accurate and which leads the reader clearly and confidently through a socially and scientifically contentious topic. Mooney knows how to express the results of dauntingly complex models of weather systems in terms that are intuitive, and captures the dynamics of the scientific process without idealizing or demonizing anyone. It is clear who he thinks the winners and losers are, but his goal is to show why their positions may have been reasonable at one point, and how the community of science moves forward even as some people (William Gray, for instance) remain in place and are abandoned by their peers.