Storm season ends: Are potent hurricanes linked to global warming?
As the curtain drops on the 2005 hurricane season Wednesday, the collective sigh of relief from a storm-weary country is palpable.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The record-breaking year touched virtually every corner of the nation - from flattened, flooded homes in the Gulf to eye-popping fuel prices at the gasoline pump just about everywhere. Estimates of direct losses from hurricane Katrina alone range from $70 billion to $135 billion.
Indeed, "arguably this was the most devastating season in modern times," said Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "It's a relief to be almost at the end of the season," he added at a press briefing Tuesday.
One bright spot from this year's storm season is the return on the country's investment in hurricane-forecast research, according to Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which runs the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
The storm-track forecasts "didn't just happen by luck," he says. The ability to weave field and satellite measurements with increasingly sophisticated computer models "were the result of years of hard work. It made a huge difference, saving thousands of lives." Mr. Lautenbacher suggests that the track forecast this year may have set records for accuracy.
Even so, it was a season intense enough to prompt even forecasters to try to ease the strain with rare attempts at irony, if not humor. As Vince made landfall as the first tropical cyclone to hit the Iberian peninsula, an otherwise terse notice from the National Hurricane Center in Miami carried a line that could have been read by Monty Python's John Cleese: "As the short, happy life of Vince is now over, this will be the last advisory."
When combined with last year's storms, the 2004 and 2005 seasons "have been incredibly active and destructive," note Colorado State University atmospheric scientists William Gray and Philip J. Klotzbach in their own wrap-up of the 2005 season.
One culprit in this two-year tale of destructive storms lies half a world away, they say. Unusually warm surface water in the central tropical Pacific eventually led to persistent wind patterns over the Atlantic basin that sped storms toward the west. The result: 54 percent of the two seasons' major hurricanes made landfall, compared with an average of only 9 percent during the 1995 to 2003 seasons.
Dr. Gray and Dr. Klotzbach say they expect to see the number of hurricanes making landfall drop as the unusual steering conditions ease.
Exhausted from back-to-back years of tropical-cyclone mayhem, many people are asking about future trends, notes Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who focuses on weather and climate in the tropics.
He notes that within the climate-science community, tropical-cyclone specialists are embroiled in a debate over recent patterns in storm strength, intensity and the future.