Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Katrina, climate and a way to contribute

A group of students in Princeton started something called the Katrina Project to raise funds for rebuilding the New Orleans Public Library. At the "levee of books" on campus - the size of the levee represents the donations to date - students and other volunteers are reading from books about New Orleans and poverty in the US. You can watch and donate online.

On Monday afternoon, I read a chapter from "Why New Orleans matters" by Tom Piazza. It got me thinking about some of the climate lessons from Katrina.

Did climate change cause Hurricane Katrina? No - it is an unanswerable question. You cannot connect a particular weather event to a long-term climate trend.

A better question is, will climate warming increase the frequency of intense hurricanes like Katrina? Most likely. Is this already happening? Possibly.

The issue was very poorly covered in the media last fall, in part because of US government scientists were dissuaded from discussing a link between climate change and hurricanes (for more, check this story in the Washington Post). There is evidence that warming waters in the tropical Atlantic - believed to be caused by human-induced climate change - have increased hurricane intensity since the 1970s. By that, it means not more hurricanes, but a greater likelihood that a hurricane will build to category four or five.

There is still disagreement among scientists. For further discussion, I suggest the site maintained by Tom Knuston, a climate scientist working on the subject, or the terrific Realclimate blog.

There is one important lesson to be learned from experience of Hurricane Katrina. As my colleague Michael Oppenheimer says in "Too Hot not to Handle", Katrina showed that even an advanced industrialized society can be completely unprepared to handle a climate disaster.


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