Florida's governor cautiously entered the debate Wednesday over whether rising global temperatures are to blame for an increase in the number of strong hurricanes, meeting with two researchers who say global warming is threatening Florida with a long-term future of more bad storms.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Florida's governor cautiously entered the debate Wednesday over whether rising global temperatures are to blame for an increase in the number of strong hurricanes, meeting with two researchers who say global warming is threatening Florida with a long-term future of more bad storms.
Bush met with Peter Webster and Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who published research last year showing an increase in global hurricane intensity, with a doubling of the number of Category 4 or 5 hurricanes since 1970. That increase coincides with a rise of nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit in ocean surface temperatures, they say.
While they agree with other scientists that the Atlantic basin is in a natural cyclical increase in hurricanes, they argue that can't explain by itself such a dramatic increase in strong storms. Warmer temperatures globally mean warmer water, which is what fuels hurricanes.
"It's very complex, but there's one thing that we do know: if you increase these surface temperatures you're going to get more intense hurricanes," said Curry. "I think we can say -- it's not totally conclusive, but with considerable confidence -- that there is this connection between global warming and increased global hurricane intensity and the increased number of hurricanes in the north Atlantic."
There isn't scientific consensus that global temperature increases explain increased hurricane intensity, and there are some researchers who say there isn't a continuing long-term pattern of global warming at all.
The debate is something of a storm itself, and Bush joined it cautiously.
"He said they presented some pretty compelling information," said Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss, declining to say whether Bush agrees that global warming is increasing the number of strong hurricanes. "He encouraged them to continue with their research."
Webster and Curry's meeting came as environmentalists seek to push to the state level efforts to curb the emission of so-called greenhouse gasses that are blamed for causing global temperature increases.
They say President Bush's administration in Washington hasn't done enough to combat greenhouse gas emissions -- and note that Florida could help by cutting emissions since it's the fifth largest producer of such gasses in the United States.
Besides, in hurricane alley, Florida has more to gain from lower emissions than the country as a whole if Webster and Curry's findings are right , said Jerry Karnas of the Florida Wildlife Federation, which set up the meeting.
Bush didn't commit to any policy changes in the meeting.
But Attorney General Charlie Crist, with whom the scientists also met, said he was impressed. Crist is one of several men running to be the next governor.
"It's fairly apparent that (global warming) has increased (hurricane) activity," Crist said after meeting the scientists.
Webster and Curry's research, published last year in the journal Science along with another 2005 study in the journal Nature by Massachusetts Institute of Technology climatologist Kerry Emanuel appeared coincidentally about the time the country was looking at pictures of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina.
But there are those who say the connection between warming and hurricanes isn't so clear.
Florida's state climatologist James O'Brien is one, arguing that the increase in stronger storms is part of a natural cycle.
"The jury is still out whether they're right - or I'm right," said O'Brien, who is director of the Florida State Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies.
O'Brien said there's no question that some parts of the ocean are heating up -- at the poles for example -- but that tropical waters don't seem to be.
Other skeptics of the global warming impact on hurricanes are probably the nation's best-known hurricane predictors -- Colorado State University's William Gray and Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center.
In a recent Washington Post article, Gray, whose hurricane forecast is widely disseminated, proclaimed the whole idea of global warming "one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people." He has said the Earth is getting warmer -- but that it will soon begin cooling because of natural weather cycles.
Mayfield, director of the hurricane center's Tropical Prediction Center in Miami, doesn't deny that temperatures are going up, but said last year that's not to blame for more storms.
"The increased activity since 1995 is due to natural fluctuations -- cycles of hurricane activity ... not enhanced substantially by global warming," Mayfield told a congressional panel.
But Webster said the patterns are going beyond the natural variation.
"Anybody who doesn't put into their risk analysis the possibility of increasing hurricanes in the Southeast, in the Gulf states, is probably a little irresponsible," Webster said.
"Even if there's only an 80 percent that we're right," Curry added, "it's a serious risk."
Source: Associated Press