Books and Arts

Nature 448, 648 (9 August 2007) | doi:10.1038/448648a; Published online 8 August 2007

In the eye of the storm

James Elsner1

BOOK REVIEWEDStorm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming

by Chris Mooney

Harcourt: July 2007. 392 pp. $26

Chris Mooney's follow-up to his The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005) is a reconnaissance flight into the turbulent debate over a link between hurricane activity and global warming. The flight log is compelling enough for Hollywood. It records a clash between the empiricist climate scientist William Gray (think Ian McKellen) at Colorado State University and the theoretician Kerry Emanuel (think Tom Hanks) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Journalist Mooney has a scriptwriter's flair for pitting his protagonists against each other and dishing the historical and methodological back story in vivid prose: "If we're really making the deadliest storms on Earth still deadlier, it will represent one of humanity's all-time greatest foot-shooting episodes."

In the eye of the storm

NOAA/AP

Debate swirls about the recent upswing in severe hurricanes such as Katrina.

The debate swirls about the cause of the recent upswing in severe hurricanes, especially over the Atlantic where evidence for a change is most compelling. Warmer tropical oceans will increase the potential intensity of tropical cyclones, but for Gray the causal chain ends with the ocean. "Nobody knows how the atmosphere works," he says, feeling that it is far too complicated to be captured by a computer. Emanuel, on the other hand, adds a further link to the chain, placing the blame on human meddling with the composition of the atmosphere.

Just a month before Hurricane Katrina's devastating strike on America's south coast on 29 August 2005, Emanuel published a paper in this journal (Nature 436, 686–688; 2005) that ignited a scientific debate by linking storm strength to ocean temperatures. It also triggered a maelstrom of media coverage that resulted in the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) closing ranks and claiming unequivocally that the increase in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995 could be attributed solely to an ocean cycle unrelated to greenhouse warming. Mooney is at his best when describing this sort of political tempest. By allowing what Emanuel calls the "party line" while discouraging dissenters, NOAA was, in Mooney's words, "gaming the release of information and trying to shift the debate in their favoured direction".

Mooney revisits his call, propounded in his earlier book and in subsequent newspaper and magazine columns, for scientists to do a better job of communicating science to the public and media. He urges researchers to stop pretending that they are nothing but objective "fact machines" and to instead give more general interpretations of their results and put them into a broader context.

Drawing on scientific conferences and on interviews with hurricane and climate scientists during 2006, Mooney covers plenty of ground, from heat engines and synoptic meteorology to computer modelling, and all without equations. At times Storm World feels hurried, US-centric and somewhat uneven, jumping between history, science and politics. But Mooney presents an accurate account of the clash between two of the most prominent climate scientists today. He is a good writer — "Scientists, like hurricanes, do extraordinary things at high wind speeds" — and his stories are consistently about people, giving the book a wide appeal.

In the end, he does give a clear picture of what the hurricane–climate change debate is about and where it might go next. As there are no answers, the book provides none. Not surprisingly, Mooney takes a liking to Gray, but cannot recommend his view that global warming has nothing to do with hurricane activity. Amusingly, Mooney also implies that, for storm climatologists, science sometimes plays second fiddle to entertaining soundbites.

Many scientists are contributing to one of the most important climate debates in history. Neither side is completely wrong and both would do well to study the full breadth of literature, to which Storm World is a useful addition. It's a great summer read, while the story continues. Let's hope there are more answers in the sequel.

  1. James Elsner is a professor of geography at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306, USA.

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