Fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina smacked into New Orleans and produced one of America’s worst natural disasters. The destructive capabilities of these storms have spurred scientists and governments to improve technology and search for ways to limit the impact on humans. In his fascinating and thoughtful new book, “A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes” Eric Jay Dolin talks about history-making storms.
Q: What fascinates you about hurricanes?
They’re the greatest storms on Earth, the ultimate in reality TV, and all-encompassing events that are among the most gripping stories you can tell. In the book, I use the hurricanes as a narrative backbone to tell a broader story about American history and the evolution of meteorology, communications, television, satellite technology, and computer modeling. It all comes back to this seminal event, which is the hurricane itself.
Q: What gives hurricanes so much power?
Heat is the No. 1 source of the hurricane’s energy. The process begins when the upper layer of the ocean in the tropics, going down about 150 feet, reaches a trigger point of 80 degrees F. As vapor travels through the air, it condenses into rain as it gets cooler. It’s that heat, the latent heat of condensation, that really provides power: The warmer the waters are, the more energy potential there is. There have to be other conditions too. The main one is that there has to be relatively little wind shear. If the wind blows in different directions at different heights, it tends to rip apart the hurricane or shove it over on its side.
Q: Will we ever be able to perfectly predict the path of a hurricane?
We have computerized weather models that can do millions of equations, and the cone of uncertainty [around a hurricane’s predicted path] gets narrower and narrower. But hurricanes are incredibly complex meteorological events. It really comes down to MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz’s chaos theory, known as the butterfly effect. It’s not that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world is going to [directly] cause a hurricane in another part of the world. His point is that small changes in conditions can result in big changes in the future.
Q: Can the U.S. improve its response to hurricanes?
There’s reason for hope. But in order for that hope to be turned into reality, there has to be volition and determination on the part of individuals, communities, regions, and the entire country. We need to take effective steps to protect people and clean up after hurricanes. All those things require forethought, planning, and most importantly, money and political will.
A review of Eric Jay Dolin’s book, as well as of “Katrina” by Andy Horowitz, can be found here.