Fuel for Thought: Hurricane Season Below Average

     Since Hurricane Katrina, the broadcast networks have linked global warming to more intensive hurricanes, treating higher ocean temperatures as “high-octane fuel.” Yet they have ignored the cooling waters of the Atlantic.


     “Now, some scientists believe that global warming is the reason we are seeing more powerful hurricanes each year,” ABC’s Jeffrey Kofman said on the May 22 broadcast of “World News Tonight.” He continued, painting a life-threatening picture: “So powerful that they are now considering adding a fearsome category 6. That's hurricanes of more than 175 miles an hour. Something no one would want to meet head-on.”


     Robert Bazell of NBC said many studies “have predicted that a warming Earth will lead to a further rise in sea level, heavy rain in some areas and drought in others, and an increase in severe weather, including hurricanes” on the June 22 edition of the “Nightly News.”


     “Good Morning America” did a segment on hurricanes, following with a preview of Al Gore’s global warming movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Diane Sawyer began the May 23 bit saying, “And of course, there are a lot of people who believe that global warming is, in fact, to blame, in part, for this surge in hurricanes, one of them, former Vice President Al Gore, who has re-emerged, leading a kind of call to action.”


     A problem with these claims is the inaction of the tropical storms and hurricanes this year. As of August 21, this year’s tropical storm season was below normal, but the fourth tropical storm of the season pushed this year slightly above the previous trend. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration actually downgraded the number of storms it expected for the 2006 season, but still predicts an above-average season.


     Scientists worry about the connection between global warming and hurricanes because some say the warm sea surface temperatures act as “fuel” for hurricanes. On June 22, CBS’s Bill Whitaker said the earth’s temperature rose by a degree in the 20th century. He continued on the “Evening News” segment, “That may not sound like much, but another scientific report released today says that was enough to account for half the ocean warmth that fueled last year's deadly hurricanes and that natural warming cycles have only a minor effect.”


     Whitaker interviewed Rick Anthes of University Corp. for Atmospheric Research. Anthes claimed, “One of the most sure things about global warming is that the sea surface temperature is going to keep rising for many years. Regardless of what we do, we are going to see an upward trend in hurricane intensity and possibly even numbers.”


     Lester Holt discussed hurricanes and global warming with NBC Weather Plus meteorologist Bill Karins on July 22 for “Saturday Today.” Karins said that January to July of this year “was the warmest six months we've had on record, all the way back to 1895.” Holt then mentioned that water temperatures were up as well, “Specifically, the Caribbean. We know that can fuel hurricanes.”


     Karins admitted to a slow hurricane season, but followed with, “And think of the ocean temperature as the fuel. So it's been very hot lately, and I look at that, and I say, ‘Oh, it's hot.’ But, unfortunately, it's also warming the water. This is high-octane fuel for the hurricanes.”


     But the warm water “fuel” has cooled down. Sea surface temperatures that were abnormally warm in the Atlantic last year are cooler this year. Dr. Roy Spencer, who works at the University of Alabama and does research for NASA, wrote: “A new scientific article now accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the globally averaged upper ocean cooled dramatically between 2003 and 2005, effectively erasing 20% of the warming that occurred over the previous 48 years!” (An online draft is available here.)


     While the increased sea temperatures generated coverage, the cooling of the ocean hasn’t. A Business & Media Institute search since the end of July, when the study was accepted, found no stories by the networks on the cooling seas as a reason for fewer hurricanes this year. There were only stories on higher temperatures fueling more (as yet non-existent) intense hurricanes.


     Not all climatologists and hurricane experts agree there is a link between global warming and storms. The Washington Post article “Scientists Disagree On Link Between Storms, Warming” analyzed the difference of opinions between scientists in the global warming/hurricane debate.


     Jim Acosta of CBS did the same. He interviewed Judith Curry, a Climate Researcher at Georgia Tech, for the “Evening News” on March 20. At the time Curry had an upcoming article for the journal Science, where she claimed global warming has increased sea temperature. Curry said, “So that extra half-degree, extra degree can provide a lot of extra fuel for the hurricanes.”


     But Acosta also interviewed government hurricane forecasters, who were “not impressed” with the “dire warnings.” Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center said, “Without invoking global warming, I think that just the natural variability alone is what this can be attributed to.” Joe Bastardi of AccuWeather concurred: “It has nothing to do – well, it may have something to do with it, but these storms are coming back whether there is global warming or not.”


     One year’s difference doesn’t set a trend. But if rising ocean temperatures are covered again and again as proof of more intense hurricanes, then the media should give equal time to cooling temperatures.