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Evaluating Katrina’s impact on science

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Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on August 29, 2005, and became one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, has influenced more than just the city of New Orleans. Since 2005, it has transformed the nature of research, funding, and public perception of hurricane research.

For the fifth anniversary of this catastrophic event, Nature asked leading meteorologists and climate experts to weigh in on how the event has shaped science in the intervening years. Their answers present a small slice of changes to the field in the aftermath of Katrina and some of the challenges that lie ahead.


Atmospheric scientist James Kossin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

Since Katrina, there’s been more media exposure of hurricane research because it’s exciting and, dare I say, sexy stuff. But I think the field still has some fairly open questions. The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was a record breaker and they’re expecting this year to be quite busy as well. But in terms of overall tropical cyclone activity globally, we’ve been sharply trending downwards ever since around 2005. We don’t know if this is natural variability or if it has something to do with greenhouse gas forcing. We can speculate but I think ultimately we’re not really sure what climate change is going to do to cyclones in a global sense.

Environmental scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research in Boulder, Colorado:

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From my vantage point, it was not Katrina per se that had such an influence on the field, but rather the constellation of Katrina along with the Emanuel and Webster et al. papers [published in Nature and Science, respectively], followed soon thereafter by Al Gore’s movie. Hurricane science went from a fairly quiet backwater to front and center in the highly public and politicized debate over climate policy. The science (and indeed Katrina and her victims) became little more than a symbolic talking point in the debate. Many scientists were swept up in the frenzy, on both sides, and it was ugly, both in public and behind the scenes. Several relatively quiet hurricane seasons later, it seems that the hurricane science community has caught its breath and come to its senses. The experiences of the hurricane science community over these past years are both a cautionary tale, and a success story, about how to not let the intense political debate get the best of the scientific community.

Atmospheric scientist Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta:

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Hurricane Katrina has resulted in extensive analysis of hurricane data and the development of improved modeling capacity, which has brought many new people into the field. The science of hurricane research has become intimately connected with applications that address the socioeconomic impacts of hurricanes, communication of hurricane risk to the public, the logistics of emergency management, and land use policies. Hence the social science and engineering fields are engaging with the science of hurricanes in new ways.

Meteorologist Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado:

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Katrina came to embody the potential impacts of climate change. The post-apocalyptic images of displaced people and entire neighborhoods destroyed by storm surge and failed levees had a major impact. Science has responded to this issue. We are still unsure as to the changes that will occur in hurricane frequency, or in the regions that will be targeted. However, there is growing evidence of a substantial increase in the most intense storms, with potential for up to a doubling of category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Sadly, however, the major funding required to support an effort on par with the threat has suffered from the financial crisis, with supporting federal legislation for targeted funding now gathering dust.

Meteorologist Tom Knutson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

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Hurricane Katrina created a large amount of interest in the climate and weather research communities on the question of whether greenhouse warming was already causing noticeable changes in hurricanes. If so, this would imply that projected climate warming would lead to even more dramatic changes in hurricanes over the 21st century. With this setting as a stimulus in the field, there has been a flurry of research on the topic in the 5 years since Katrina. The current status of the science has been assessed in this Nature Geoscience review paper. In that assessment, we conclude that it remains uncertain whether past changes in hurricane activity have exceeded the variability expected from natural causes.

Atmospheric scientist Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University in Fort Collins:

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The primary focus [of hurricane research] over the past five years is on being able to better predict the intensity change in hurricanes. While the forecast of hurricane tracks seems to get better just about each year, the intensity forecasts really haven’t improved in the last twenty years. But several field campaigns are being conducted this summer/fall to help better understand hurricane structure and intensity.

Top image: NOAA

Further reading:

In the eye of the storm

The storm watchers

The man who saw it coming

Briefing: devastation in New Orleans

Comments

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    James Kossin said:

    Well done Adam. This is a broad and interesting representation of how the field of tropical cyclone research has evolved since Katrina and some of the bumps experienced along the way. The comments of Phil Klotzbach also serve to remind us that while the questions related to tropical cyclones and climate change are vitally important, we also continue to face significant challenges in an operational forecasting sense. The stakes in both cases are very high.

    I’d also like to comment that my remarks, in the context laid out above, may have taken on a tone that isn’t quite what I had intended. There are a number of aspects of tropical cyclone changes under greenhouse warming that we as a scientific community are gaining ground toward understanding. For one example, as touched on by Greg Holland, there is an increasing body of evidence that the strongest storms have, and will continue to, become stronger. This evidence has been found by analyzing past data, and it has been found using numerical models to make projections into the next century. These results are a good example of the rapid scientific progress on multiple fronts that has been made since Katrina.

    Still, the uncertainties are formidable, and the fact that global tropical cyclone activity has been sharply decreasing since 2005 simply serves to emphasize that these uncertainties exist across a wide range of timescales. We can say with confidence that we can not attribute a single event like Katrina to global warming, but when we observe longer-term systematic behavior, the attribution question becomes hazier. Is the global decline just a temporary blip (part of the expected natural variability described by Tom Knutson), or is there a climate change connection? We’re all working toward an answer, but at present there isn’t an obvious one.

    Finally, my words “exciting” and “sexy” were certainly never meant to be linked in any way to the devastating event of Hurricane Katrina, as the context above might suggest. Rather, they serve to at least partly explain the tremendous influx of new talent into the tropical cyclone research community, as mentioned by Judy Curry, and the heightened media and public interest. Many of us are, at some level, fascinated by these powerful storms, but as researchers we also never forget that they have the potential to cause unimaginable hardship. With so much at stake the motivation is high, and the recent report in Nature Geoscience is a testament to the best kind of scientific process where a diverse group can come together for a common goal.

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