IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The science of cyclones

The catastrophic cyclone that hit Myanmar hints at the shape of things to come in a warming world — but probably not for the reason you think. Chris Mooney, the author of "Storm World," argues that the tragedy says more about the sad state of infrastructure in the developing world than it does about the raw impact of climate change. However, shifts in climate will likely accentuate that global rich-vs.-poor split.

Mooney has been focusing on the intersection of science and politics for years - in his Weblog, aptly titled "The Intersection," as well as in his first book, "The Republican War on Science."

"Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle Over Global Warming" traces more than a century of often-sharp disputes over climate science. Mooney, who grew up in New Orleans, was moved to delve deeply into the subject by Hurricane Katrina, one of the most politically charged storms in U.S. history.   

But Mooney's interest in the science of storms isn't confined to U.S. borders. Long before this month's tragedy, he started paying close attention to the cyclones and typhoons that sweep through the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the hurricanes in the Atlantic. All three of those terms refer to tropical cyclones, with geography serving as the only distinction.

Typically, every twist and turn of the Atlantic storms is documented for anxious Americans. In contrast, the Pacific and Indian Ocean storms don't draw much attention here unless they turn truly catastrophic, as Cyclone Sidr did last year and Cyclone Nargis did this month.

In an essay for Science Progress, published today, Mooney says the winds weren't the only reason why Sidr and Nargis were so devastating:

"Although the Yucatan and Central America got smacked by back-to-back Category 5 storms last year - Hurricanes Dean and Felix were both far more powerful, meteorologically, than Cyclones Sidr and Nargis - the combined death toll was only 162. That's because nations like Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras warned their populations and, in some cases, evacuated people in vulnerable areas. It's already painfully obvious that Myanmar's military junta did nothing of the kind."

In a telephone interview, Mooney told me that Cyclone Nargis could well have political implications for the junta - with the caveat that he's a science journalist, not an expert on Asian diplomacy.

"These are major events on the world stage," he said. "If you even look at Katrina and how unprepared George W. Bush looked and how much that hurt him politically, it's sort of a similar analogy."

Mooney said an even bigger issue faces not only Myanmar, but Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries in the cyclone zone: "There's a huge socioeconomic disparity, in terms of levels of preparedness, and in terms of levels of damage, and especially in terms of numbers killed by cyclones in the world. And that's something we've got to address."

Here are additional excerpts from today's Q&A on Cyclone Nargis and its implications. You can also hear the whole interview as an MP3 audio file suitable for downloading or online listening.

Q: Is this another sign that the global warming nightmare is coming upon us?

Mooney: I'd be careful about saying that. There's good evidence that global warming should affect tropical cyclones ... in some way and probably make them stronger on average. But when you get a catastrophe like this, global warming isn't the direct cause, and it really doesn't explain why there's been so much suffering.

You really have to look at other factors in order to figure out why a storm can hit the United States and only a couple die, and a storm can hit Myanmar and tens of thousands of people die. That has much more to do with socioeconomic conditions, forecasting systems, lack of evacuation, lack of communication to the populace, and all these other things.

These images show views of the coast of

Myanmar captured by NASA's Terra satellite

before and after Cyclone Nargis hit. The top

image is from April 15, and the bottom image

shows extensive flooding on May 5. Click on the

image for a larger version.

Q: Is this another case of a perfect storm, where, as in Katrina, it happened to hit just wrong and was something that played on all the vulnerabilities that that area faced?

A: It's certainly looking like that. You had something with Nargis that you didn't have with Katrina. Katrina, we saw it coming days in advance. We saw a Category 5, and we were just sitting there waiting. Well, Nargis rapidly intensified at the last minute. It had been a fairly weak storm, and then it just started exploding even as it headed toward the coastline. So people didn't even know there was a bad storm coming until maybe just 24 or 48 hours out. And it kept getting worse and worse and worse, and then it hit a vulnerable place.

Q: But you had written about Nargis, gosh, more than a week in advance and indicated that this would be a pretty bad storm.

A: Yeah, I blogged about it. I wrote about it over at the Daily Green. I track cyclones, so whenever I see something developing in the Bay of Bengal, and I see the ocean temperatures are really warm ... you just know that it can't be good. I didn't know how strong the storm was going to get, but I knew that the ocean temperatures were warm and I knew that it was already completely formed - and it had this ocean ready to pounce and ready to draw energy from. If you look at the Bay of Bengal, it sucked a couple of degrees Celsius out of the ocean and flung that at the coastline.

Q: So I guess the question would be, if you could figure this out just looking at the satellite imagery, why couldn't the authorities there figure it out? Or does it point to something about the regime in Myanmar that's screwed up?

A: I think it's a political thing, and I think it's a socioeconomic thing. Myself and hurricane forecasters who do this at the Joint Typhoon Warning Center could obviously look at satellite pictures and do a lot of other things, and they did. The Indian Meteorological [Department] was tracking the storm. I think that forecasting is not nearly as good in the Bay of Bengal region as it is for the United States and the Atlantic region. But it does exist.

Nevertheless, if people aren't warned, if people aren't informed about what's coming, they don't have access to computers necessarily to do the kind of thing I'm doing. If they're living in flimsy structures, if they're living near coastlines and they aren't evacuated, you can get massive casualties. And that's what we're seeing.

Q: Even though this really says more about the state of international development than it does about global climate change, I suppose you could argue that this is a preview of the sorts of dislocations that could come with climate change or stronger storms. You've got a collision of the low level of infrastructure in some of these low-lying areas with the potential for stronger storms or changes in weather patterns that may stress populations that haven't faced that sort of stress.

A: Absolutely. We don't know: Global warming might affect cyclones on a regional level, and so you might get certain hotspot areas where you get a lot more of them. That might be, say, the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal. It's been very busy there lately. This is the third Category 4 or 5 [storm] in the space of a year in the north Indian Ocean, which encompasses the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. So that's troubling.

Gail Albert Halaban
Chris Mooney focuses on climate in "Storm World."

And even if climate change doesn't end up having a large dramatic effect on cyclonic storms, which we're still trying to study and figure out, there's just no doubt that it's going to raise sea level.  These are already low-lying places with a lot of people living there. If the ocean starts coming toward them, even in a slow way, that's going to be very destabilizing. And if they then get a storm with a higher ocean, you compound the risk.

Q: Since you came out with your book ... has there been new information that's come to light that has led you to see a different perspective? What's the latest on the intersection between climate science and the way that society works?

A: Well, the good news scientifically is that this is a growth area, and a lot of researchers have now dived into the field and they're doing a lot of studies. The bad news is that makes it probably murkier than ever. .... More science doesn't necessarily generate clear answers immediately. Scientists are starting to study all kinds of things, like what if storms get more intense but their numbers decrease? Is that bad, or good, or does it wash out on balance? That might be one of the possibilities now. So it's not as clear-cut as anyone might have said immediately after Katrina.

Listen to the full interview, including a discussion of a previous world-changing storm, by clicking on this link to the MP3 audio (9 MB). And tell us whether or not you want more Cosmic Loggery via audio. If you're into that sort of thing, you might enjoy this Cosmic Log pilot podcast about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. By the way, if you want to "reimagine" the Cosmic Log theme on your own thereminondes Martenot or musical saw, feel free to do so, and send me a copy.