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On the Lighter Side...

August 22, 2010
So, this blog shall not perish from the earth after all.  I have decided to use it, for the time being, for my more casual, random posts on strange topics that interest me, like hurricanes and box office statistics, while the main action of informal theologizing will happen over at the new Sword and Ploughshare.  Hopefully this sideshow, however, will not be entirely without interest.
So, here is the first lightened-up post here, on hurricanes, heat waves, and climate change (some form of this is likely to appear in the 4th issue of Fermentations.)  

For years, we have all heard the increasingly hysterical rhetoric about how a warming climate will lead to more hurricanes and more powerful ones.  Hyperactive seasons like 2005 and 2008, and superstorms like Hurricane Katrina have been chalked up without further ado to climate change, and used as poster children for the dangers of a warming world.  As usual, the rhetoric has outrun the science, since the studies on the subject have generally been fairly inconclusive and ambiguous, although there has been enough evidence to establish a tentative consensus for a correlation between a warming planet and increased hurricane activity.  Our ever-surprising planet, however, has stubbornly resisted this correlation through the blistering summer of 2010.  

The hurricane season dawned on June 1, accompanied by much fanfare and predictions from all reputable prediction bodies that 2010 would take its place as one of the top five Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, due largely to the record-hot temperatures across the tropical Atlantic.  The usually inactive month of June showed early promise, spawning the remarkably intense Hurricane Alex, which struck northeastern Mexico on June 30th as the 2nd most intense June hurricane recorded.  However, as July and the first half of August slid by, the tropics languished in doldrums of inactivity.  Two tiny and short-lived tropical storms, Bonnie and Colin, came and went, unnoticed by all but full-time tropics watchers.  Over the same period, the eastern Pacific hurricane season, the western Pacific typhoon season, and the Indian Ocean tropical cyclone season were all non-events, resulting in the least active Northern Hemisphere tropical cyclone season on record.  

Meanwhile, most of the Northern Hemisphere’s landmasses blistered under temperatures nothing short of astounding.  Seventeen countries broke their all-time heat records this year (more than ever before), from Pakistan (128) to Finland (99).  Worst-hit of all was western Russia, where tens of thousands died in a seemingly endless heat wave that kept Moscow’s temperature above average for 65 consecutive days, 16F above average for 35 consecutive days, and at or above the previous all-time record (99F) for 7 days.  Meteorologist Jeff Masters called it “one of the most intense, widespread, and long-lasting heat waves in world history.”

As climatologists reached for an explanation of the unexpected inactivity of the tropical hurricane season, the massive heat waves emerged as the likeliest villains. Jeff Masters explains: “since Northern Hemisphere land areas have heated up to record temperatures this summer, this has created strong rising motion over the continents. This rising motion must be compensated by strong sinking motion over the adjacent oceans in order to conserve mass. Sinking air causes drying and an increase in stability.”  Greater atmospheric stability means fewer clouds form, and without clouds, no tropical cyclones form.  
In other words, an extraordinarily hot globe may actually be responsible for suppressing tropical cyclone activity, contrary to tentative scientific predictions and hysterical media prognostications--highlighting once again just how puny our efforts to predict our vast and complex planet remain.  


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