Flying Blind Into a Monster Hurricane Season
By Stephen Leahy
“…New Orleans is at the same risk as it was before Katrina.”
– Stephen Leatherman, director of the International Hurricane Research Center
Aug 24 (IPS) – Category Five Hurricane Dean is just the first of several monster storms coming this hurricane season, meteorologists predict.
The United States and other countries remain highly vulnerable, even as budget cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) imperil hurricane prediction and research.
“The U.S. will experience landfalls of between two and four major hurricanes this year,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Centre in Maryland.
“In addition to Dean, the Caribbean region can expect two or three more major storms,” Bell told IPS.
Major hurricanes are defined as Category Three or higher, meaning winds of at least 178 kilometres per hour with storm surges ranging from three metres to as much as 10 metres. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from Jun. 1 to Nov. 30.
NOAA also predicts 10 to 12 lesser but still destructive Category One and Two hurricanes and tropical storms. Tropical Storm Erin brought extensive flooding throughout much of the U.S. midwest this week.
“We are in a very active hurricane era and we should prepare for one active hurricane season after another,” Bell said.
Last year’s 10 named Atlantic storms, which included five hurricanes, only two of them considered major, was a “lucky aberration”, according to Bell.
A change in tropical weather patterns called the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation during the mid-1990s has created the conditions for a more active hurricane cycle that may last for 30 years. Climate change is likely also playing a role, but more research needs to be done.
However, such research is in serious jeopardy as NASA has cancelled or delayed the launch of satellites that look back at the Earth and provide invaluable information about hurricanes, track the melting of glaciers and droughts, deforestation and much more.
“The [George W.] Bush administration has decided going to Mars and the International Space Station is more important,” said Judith Curry, chair of climate and remote sensing at Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
“They literally removed ‘to protect Planet Earth’ from NASA’s mission statement,” Curry said in an interview.
NASA has long had a series of Earth-observing satellites, whose data is used by scientists around the world to monitor the planet. However by 2010, 40 percent of the current satellites will be out of service, with few if any replacements on the way, as the earth sciences budget was slashed by 30 percent between 2000 and 2006. Billions of dollars will go into manned space efforts instead.
One of the many not-good things is the loss of data for improving the tracking and forecasting of hurricanes during an era of increased storm activity.
Equally serious is the lack of effort and investment to keep coastal regions safe despite the toll Hurricane Katrina exacted in 2005. Practically no coastal region in the U.S. is prepared for the landfall of a major hurricane, Curry added.
“New Orleans is still a mess. A Category Three hurricane strike this year would be catastrophic,” she said.
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