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It’s not Easy Being Gore: Media Creates A Category 6 Tempest In A Teapot

By Joe Romm  

"It’s not Easy Being Gore: Media Creates A Category 6 Tempest In A Teapot"

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The fact that Sandy -- a Category 1 hurricane just before it hit the Jersey Shore -- had more total energy than Katrina at landfall, suggests our hurricane scale needs adjustment.

The fact that Sandy — a Category 1 hurricane just before it hit the Jersey Shore — had more total energy than Katrina at landfall, suggests our hurricane scale needs adjustment.

CREDIT: NASA

It is not easy being Al Gore.

You can say something fairly innocuous, have it taken out of context or slightly mis-transcribed, and the gotcha police can’t wait to put the virtual cuffs on you and perp-walk you to the slammer, the clink, or, I suppose in Gore’s case, the cooler.

Today’s molehill started when Gore gave an interview to Ezra Klein of the Washington Post in which he — correctly — noted that some scientists have been thinking about adding a Category 6 to the hurricane scale. This is how his remarks were — incorrectly — transcribed in the paper:

The temperature has increased globally and there’s now 4 percent more water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere than 30 years ago. As a result, every extreme weather event now has a component of global warming in it.

If you look at superstorm Sandy on October 29th, the ocean water east of New Jersey was nine degrees fahrenheit above average. That’s what put so much more energy into that storm. That’s what put so much more water vapor into that storm. Would there be a storm anyway? Maybe so. Would there be hurricanes and floods and droughts without man-made global warming? Of course. But they’re stronger now. The extreme events are more extreme. The hurricane scale used to be 1-5 and now they’re adding a 6. The fingerprint of man-made global warming is all over these storms and extreme weather events.

Now there’s nothing here that many leading scientists haven’t said many times in recent years — see “Trenberth: How To Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change” and climate scientists explain how warming is “worsening some recent extreme weather events like superstorm Sandy.”

I would add that back in 2006, Prof. Kerry Emanuel — author of Divine Wind: The History And Science Of Hurricanes and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the impact of climate change on hurricanes — said “I don’t see any reason why the power of hurricanes wouldn’t continue to increase over the next 100 to 200 years.” He stands by that statement in an e-mail to me (see below).

The one slightly ambiguous part of Gore’s remarks was his use of the word “they’re” in the italicized line above, “The hurricane scale used to be 1-5 and now they’re adding a 6.” When I read that I thought Gore was speaking a bit figuratively, that warming-worsened extreme weather — which was the antecedent for his previous use of “they’re” — meant the strongest hurricanes were getting stronger, similar to the famous metaphor of adding new numbers on the climate dice.

Of course, the easiest way to find out exactly what Gore meant would be to ask him. But that would be too easy and generate a lot fewer eyeballs.

So the gotcha police — this time in the form of the normally solid Jason Samenow of the Washington Post Capital Weather Gang — decided to ask someone else what Gore meant, which allowed him to blast the Nobel prize-winning former vice president in a piece titled, “The Category 6 hurricane: Al Gore’s science fiction“:

Gore’s statement about this new breed of hurricanes is patently false. There’s no new hurricane category in the works.

Just to be sure, I contacted Chris Vaccaro, director of the National Weather Service’s office of public affairs, and asked him whether the National Hurricane Center is about to unveil the doomsday Category 6. In less than 10 minutes, he fired back this response:

No, we’re not pursuing any such change. I’m also not sure who VP Gore means by “they.” I’d also point out that the top rating, Category 5, has no ceiling: it includes hurricanes with top sustained winds of 157mph and higher

Well, if he fired it back in less than 10 minutes it must be extra true. As an aside, the fact that Category 5 has no ceiling is completely irrelevant to the question of whether a Category 6 would be useful as a new category.

For the record, Gore’s people responded to me in 12 minutes. It turns out not only were Samenow’s and Vaccaro’s reading wrong, so was mine.

The full transcript of Gore’s remarks here were:

“The scientists are now adding category 6 to the hurricane…some are proposing we add category 6 to the hurricane scale that used to be 1-5.”

In short, Gore started to make a misstatement, which he immediately corrected. I think it is fair to say that every single one of us has done that many times.

UPDATE (Friday 8-23, 4 pm): Ezra Klein has now posted that he may not have accurately transcribed Gore’s comments, and Samenow has retracted “the balance of my criticism.”

While Samenow and Vaccaro are puzzled by who precisely is thinking about adding a Category 6, Google — that most responsive of sources — gave me an answer in just a few seconds, which means it must be super true, right?

I had remembered an ABC news story on the subject from 2006, “Category 6 Hurricanes? They’ve Happened.” As Bill Blakemore reported:

There is no official Category 6 for hurricanes, but scientists say they’re pondering whether there should be as evidence mounts that hurricanes around the world have sharply worsened over the past 30 years — and all but a handful of hurricane experts now agree this worsening bears the fingerprints of man-made global warming.

In fact, say scientists, there have already been hurricanes strong enough to qualify as Category 6s.

Now I know the pedants out there are thinking, sure, but even people like Judy Curry thought global warming was making hurricanes worse back then, but what about something more recent?

Two years ago, Scientific American published, “Are Category 6 Hurricanes Coming Soon?” which explained:

Atmospheric researchers tend to agree that tropical cyclones of unusual ferocity are coming this century, but the strange fact is that there is no consensus to date on the five-point scale used to classify the power of these anticipated storms. In what may sound like a page from the script of the rock-band spoof Spinal Tap with its reference to a beyond-loud electric guitar amplifier volume 11, there is actually talk of adding a sixth level to the current Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, on which category 5 intensity means sustained winds higher than 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour) for at least one minute, with no speed cap.

The lack of an upper limit on the scale results in all of the most intense tropical cyclones getting lumped together, despite their wide range of power. Category 5 becomes less descriptive when it includes 2005′s Emily, which reached peak wind speeds of 257.5 kph (160 mph) and six hours in category 5; the same year’s Katrina which held peak wind velocity of 280 kph (175 mph) for 18 hours in the category; and 1980′s Allen, churning with peak winds at 305 kph (190 mph) maintained for 72 hours in the highest category.

And now the ferocity forecast for the century adds to this classification problem. “The severe hurricanes might actually become worse. We may have to invent a category 6,” says David Enfield, a senior scientist at the University of Miami and former physical oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This new level wouldn’t be an arbitrary relabeling. Global satellite data from the past 40 years indicate that the net destructive potential of hurricanes has increased, and the strongest hurricanes are becoming more common—especially in the Atlantic.

Bryan Walsh at Time magazine quoted this SciAm article and wrote, “researchers are even considering adding a Category 6 to hurricane ratings.”

It would seem the Washington Post owes Gore an apology and retraction. Samenow claims that “generally, Gore’s characterization of the links between global warming and hurricane intensity is a bit fast and loose,” but it is certainly well within the spectrum of scientific views. I don’t know many climatologists who would disagree with the statement, “Global warming is making the most destructive hurricanes more destructive.”

Betsy McManus, Gore’s Director of Communications gave me this statement:

“In an interview with Ezra Klein on the progress being made to stop the climate crisis, former VP Gore discussed the destructiveness of climate change–fueled extreme weather as being categorically above and beyond the scale we currently use. To clarify, his original comments regarding hurricane measurements were intended to convey this ongoing consideration by the scientific community.”

Pretty mainstream stuff.

I asked Emanuel if he stood by his statement about the impact of warming on storms: “I don’t see any reason why the power of hurricanes wouldn’t continue to increase over the next 100 to 200 years.” He replied:

I do stand by that statement, with some caveats. First, I think the rate of increase we have seen in the Atlantic is partially owing to a decrease of sulfate aerosols, and that had already leveled off, so I would not expect to see the rate of increase sustained. Second, naturally if we do end up controlling emissions sometime in the next 200 years, we should likewise expect hurricane power to level off.

That is, he expects the power of hurricanes to keep increasing, but perhaps not as fast as it has in recent decades — and of course if we ever decide to stop global warming, then hurricanes would stop increasing in power.

I also asked Emanuel what he thought about the existing wind-based Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, given that Irene and Sandy were both just Category 1s right before landfall but ended up being among the most destructive hurricanes to hit this country. He replied:

I am not fond of the existing scale, whether the climate changes or not. It is too imprecise, and there is no logic behind the category divisions. Our community needs to re-work the scale anyway. As you point out, any metric that only accounts for wind can miss important threats associated with hurricanes. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for a concise, carefully worded forecast tailored to the current threat.

Who else doesn’t like the current scale? Scientific American reports:

“If I could do it, I would do away with categories,” says Bill Read, director of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (NHC). “The whole indexing [of hurricanes] was done back in the ’60s and ’70s when we had no way to convey the variables of damage that the storm did. We didn’t measure it that carefully; we didn’t have the tools.”

Go figure!

Finally, you’ll never guess who else doesn’t like the current scale. Yes, the Capital Weather Gang itself reported on the flaws in a system that doesn’t take into account things like storm surge and storm size. In a post last year, “Superstorm Sandy packed more total energy than Hurricane Katrina at landfall,” Brian NcNoldy explains:

It has been demonstrated time and time again that the storm surge generated by a hurricane is not very well correlated with the storm’s intensity or peak winds, but rather the storm’s size.

And, of course, storm surge is worsened every passing year that global warming raises sea levels.

Bottom line: What Vice President Gore said is well within the spectrum of views of the climatology community on our emerging understanding of global warming’s impact on hurricane’s destructiveness. Lots of scientists don’t like the current system and some have been considering a different system or adding new categories.

Again, it would seem the Washington Post owes Gore an apology and retraction.

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