boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Tempest time

Scientists debate the link between global warming and more frequent and destructive hurricanes

Storm World
By Chris Mooney
Harcourt, 392 pp., illustrated, $26

The hurricane season has begun in earnest, and with it the annual predictions of devastation to come. This year, veteran forecaster William Gray and his legendary team of hurricane watchers at Colorado State University in Fort Collins predicted an extremely active season, with 17 named Atlantic storms, nine of them hurricanes, and five of those bad enough to flatten big trees, blow out trailer parks, and send residents of low-lying areas scrambling for shelter. But if you live in a trailer or own shore-front property, don't panic: As recent history reminds us, hurricane predictions are sometimes wrong. Gray presaged a relatively mild year for 2005, which turned out to be one of the worst storm seasons in American history. And despite an ominous forecast for 2006, last year , to great relief, closed without a single hurricane striking the United States .

Nonetheless, since Katrina jolted us out of complacency two years ago, hurricanes and storms of all sorts have grown into an urgent public concern. We are endlessly fascinated by their destructive power, a power that, as Katrina so horrifyingly demonstrated, is beyond humankind's best efforts to tame. We wonder if hurricanes are actually getting worse, or just seem to be. And, increasingly, we ask guiltily whether we've brought these killer storms upon ourselves. We all know that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming. What we want to know is whether all that burning of gasoline and heating oil is pushing us ever deeper into the eye of a pitiless storm.

In "Storm World," Chris Mooney addresses that question with vigilance and verve. A science journalist whose first book, "The Republican War on Science," challenged the contortion of science by cynical vested interests, Mooney is not afraid to tackle contentious issues. And clearly, hurricane prediction is contentious. Mooney sets the scientists against each other like rival gang members: the "empiricists" vs. the "modelers." The empiricists, led by Gray, rely on tracing hurricane patterns via, among other methods, flying directly into storms to make their predictions, while the modelers, led by influential MIT hurricane-climate theorist Kerry Emanuel , build their forecasts on observations leavened with data from other parameters -- conservation of energy, behavior of gases, principles of motion, and other fundamental attributes of the atmosphere. The empiricists (who Mooney might as well have dubbed "the we're-from-Missouri school") contend that hurricane fluctuations are natural and periodic, and not affected by global warming. The modelers, whom Gray derides as "medicine men," insist that a rise in global temperature is affecting storm patterns. Emanuel, a modeler, was at first skeptical of the hurricane-global warming link, but famously reversed himself in 2005 with a paper that appeared in the online version of the scientific journal Nature. The paper, which Mooney describes as a "thunderclap," states: "My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone destructive potential, and -- taking into account an increasing coastal population -- a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the twenty-first century."

In his preface, Mooney makes clear that neither Katrina nor any other specific storm can be traced to global warming. At his conclusion, he concurs that global warming will change hurricanes, but not in a way that anyone can as yet predict. "Despite troubling signs," he writes, "the evidence simply isn't in on all of these changes -- not yet. And whatever does ultimately happen, it is unlikely to be simple or straightforward."

But Mooney makes no secret of his own sympathies. Gray, while given credit for his pioneering seasonal-forecasting scheme for the Atlantic basin, is portrayed as moody and a tad grandiose, a rather tiresome and lonely old man who has fallen out with other scientists who once held him in high regard. Mooney spends a day with Gray in his homey digs, but seems far more impressed with Emanuel, who had much less time to spare and whose "nuanced and sophisticated" speech is contrasted sharply with that of Gray, who "swears and occasionally stutters." Mooney writes admiringly of Emanuel: "Once in our conversation he even said 'e.g.' " It seems were Gray to utter this phrase, Mooney would chastise the man for his pretense.

Mooney has hit upon an important and controversial topic, and attacks it with vigor. But his case could have been made even more forcefully -- and persuasively -- had he taken a bit more time with his prose. Mooney is an explicator and polemicist, not a stylist, and at points his writing feels rushed, even perfunctory. The first half of the book, given over to a history of hurricanes and their forecasting, is at once plodding and breathless, paced with a forced suspense that quickly runs out of steam. Mooney seems far more at home in the second half, as he discusses the journalistic and political forces that have distorted the public agenda on climate change -- a topic he has covered with brio for years, both in his previous book and in print and online publications.

No credible scientist , not even Gray , doubts any longer that the wasteful habits of humankind are leaving their mark -- and likely a dangerous one -- on the climate . Given this certainty, Mooney wisely suggests that we not demand proof that these changes are intensifying hurricanes before taking action. Scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York have calculated that even a mere Category 3 hurricane could submerge much of that city in a matter of days. The same has been said of Boston. Equivocating on issues of climate change may be an amusing intellectual exercise, but perhaps not one worth the systematic sinking of our urban landscape.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, professor of journalism at Boston University and correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author, most recently, of "The Hungry Gene."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES