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World: Is Global Hurricane Devastation A Sign Of Things To Come?

The hurricane season in the Caribbean and along the southern and eastern coasts of the United States has caused hundreds of deaths, wrought unprecedented property damage, and left an indelible mark on the minds of those who survived the fearsome storms. Flooding from a tropical storm in Haiti has reportedly killed some 600 people. The U.S. state of Florida, hit by three hurricanes within a month, faces damages worth up to $18 billion. Many people have lost everything. The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Cuba have all been affected. And further afield, Japan is having one of its worst typhoon seasons on record. Is this just bad luck, or is global climate change behind these weather extremes? And are things simply going to get worse?

Prague, 21 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Spectacular storms have always been part of the monsoon season in the tropics. And hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones have always had a massive destructive power.

But the big question today is whether these storms are becoming more frequent and more violent because of man's activity on the planet. In other words, is global warming through emissions of so-called greenhouse gases beginning to destabilize world weather patterns?

Certainly Hollywood is more than willing to dramatize the possibilities for disaster due to climate change. A recent blockbuster film, called "The Day After Tomorrow," depicts scenes of sudden environmental collapse.
Ample evidence indicates that the planet is indeed warming. For instance, glaciers are melting, and trees, birds, and shellfish are pushing further north toward the Arctic.

The reality is not quite so colorful, but could be just as serious in the long run.

Peter Manins, a senior researcher at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), says an increase in storm activity would fit the pattern of climate change.

"Certainly such increases [in storm frequency] would be consistent with what we expect climate change would be doing," Manins said.

But in remarks on the phone from Melbourne, he cautions that it's "still far too early" to say whether the warming of the planet is actually causing more storms to emerge.

"It will take some time [to establish that], because we are in the early phase of climate change, where the increments are quite small at the moment, but they are anticipated to grow much larger and larger in the next 20 to 50 years," Manins said.

Julian Heming, an extreme-weather expert with the Meteorological Office in Britain, says that what is unusual in the Caribbean-Atlantic area this year is the number of storms that have actually reached land. Most of the storms usually spend themselves at sea.

"What has happened this year is that many of the tropical cyclones have actually made landfall. So of the 11 tropical cyclones which we have had in the Atlantic so far [this season], six have made landfall -- five over the United States and obviously one affecting the Caribbean as well," Heming said.

Ample evidence indicates that the planet is indeed warming. For instance, glaciers are melting, and trees, birds, and shellfish are pushing further north toward the Arctic.

But Heming, like Manins, says the contribution of this warming process to the formation, strength, and movements of tropical storms is as yet unclear.

Heming says weather even in its natural state has many variables. It's true that Hurricane Ivan, which has just devastated Florida, was of near-record intensity.

"Hurricane Ivan was a category five hurricane, which is the strongest you can get. But there have been category five hurricanes right through history; we had [only] one last year, but if you go back to previous years, previous decades, particularly in the 1960s there was a total of eight category five hurricanes, which is the greatest number in a decade," Heming said.

In any event, the Caribbean-Atlantic storms make up at most 15 percent of the world's tropical storm activity. As Heming points out, the effects of global warming can only be assessed on a global basis, and in this context, things at present are looking pretty normal.

"There has not been a great deal of variation over recent years, certainly no sense of an upward trend in activity, as I say, there are large variations in activity from year to year in different parts of the world; if anything we have seen fewer tropical cyclones in the southern hemisphere than we might have done in earlier times," Heming said.

Despite the difficulty of proving any links between extreme weather and global warming, the experts say such links should certainly not be dismissed.

And they say much more should be done to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.