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Hurricane season 2007: The opening act

Posted by Olive Heffernan on behalf of Alex Witze

June 1 is almost here, and for residents of the eastern US, Caribbean and Central America that means just one thing: stock up on the plywood and batten down the hatches, for the Atlantic hurricane season is upon us.

This week’s Nature features a minor rush of hurricane-related items. First off, in a technical manuscript, Ryan Sriver and Matthew Huber of Purdue University spell out how tropical cyclones could play a significant role in mixing the ocean’s topmost layers. They find that about 15 percent of the peak ocean heat transport can be linked to the ocean mixing caused by cyclones. Kerry Emanuel of MIT has had much the same idea before, but the Purdue work extends and better quantifies the role of hurricanes. It’s an interesting study that turns some conventional wisdom on its head: instead of worrying about how climate change affects hurricanes, maybe we should be worrying instead about how hurricanes affect climate change. Quirin Schiermeier, our correspondent in Munich, has a longer news feature on this, plus more on ocean mixing in general. (See also Martin Visbeck’s essay on ocean mixing from last week).

I’ve got a short news story previewing the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center in Miami has put out almost exactly the same forecast as last year, calling for an above-average number of storms. The 2006 predictions didn’t pan out so well – blame a late summer El Nino that surged unexpectedly, quashing the number of expected hurricanes. This year, forecasters don’t expect that to happen – and in fact anticipate a weak La Nina, the opposite weather pattern that should permit more hurricanes to form. In other words, buckle up.

One of the interesting things about this year’s season is that there is a new director for the hurricane center. This is a very big and high-profile job in the US; the center director serves as a public face for warning of dangerous storms, including trying to get people to evacuate when necessary. The previous director, Max Mayfield, was well liked by nearly everyone (even if New Orleans officials didn’t listen to his warnings as much as perhaps they should have as Hurricane Katrina approached the city in August 2005). Now the hot seat belongs to Bill Proenza, a former director of the southern region of the National Weather Service. He’s a frequent and outspoken critic of his bosses, and this month has been complaining that his center doesn’t get enough money for forecasting. He may be right, but the Atlantic is by far the best-funded and best-studied of all the world’s hurricane regions. Let us not forget the Pacific or the Indian oceans, which get hammered regularly without the benefit of a highly regarded, highly publicized hurricane center to spread warnings.

The other thing to pay attention to is the relative merits of the different ways of studying wind directons above the sea surface. The US currently has two satellites that measure this factor, but in two very different ways. The QuikSCAT satellite is a scatterometer, bouncing microwaves off the surface and measuring them when they return. The Coriolis satellite uses a radiometer, which measures microwave emissions from the ocean surface itself. Which is the better approach? Each has its merits for detecting wind vectors and each has its disadvantages. Members of Congress, though, are upset that no plans are in the works to replace the QuikSCAT scatterometer, which is far past its intended lifetime. One thing that didn’t make it into the story is the fact that Europe operates its own scatterometer, ASCAT.

If you want to stay up to date as the hurricane season progresses, I recommend checking out the Florida newspapers. The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times are particularly good sources of local information. For more of an overview, check out this week’s New York Times science section , which has a pair of lead stories devoted to hurricanes; John Schwartz, a technology reporter who covered much of the Katrina failure, has a piece on how engineers try to outwit the storms through construction. And Cornelia Dean, who has long covered coastal development issues, has a good overview on the ongoing debates over the potential links between climate change and hurricanes.

Here at Nature, we too will do our part to keep you involved and informed. Complementing our existing coverage online and in print, Nature Reports Climate Change, NPG’s dedicated climate change website will be launching next week – check in with us for updated coverage as the season gets underway.

Alex Witze

Senior News and Features Editor

Nature

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