What happened in New Orleans this week is a sad and terrible reminder that we- humanity, all of us- are a fragile lot, capable of great things and yet also powerless to stand down the force of nature. It really was only a matter of time- a city built on a muddy delta below sea level, protected by earthen berms and levees cannot survive forever. New Orleanians will rebuild, no doubt, but their city will never be the same.
Destruction of this magnitude baffles the mind. Philosophers and theologians have struggled with the question of bad things happening to good people, and we have few good answers. The more religious among us will simply shrug their shoulders and say it was God's will- and who are we to question Him? Some so-called Christians have begun to attribute the disaster to an Old Testament style God, smiting the sinful. Blame the victims, for they have brought it on themselves.
The victim never deserves the blame. Never.
Which is not to say that we are totally blameless. Hurricanes require a specific set of conditions to form, the most important of which is warm water. A simple rainstorm, occurring over the warm seas, draws up the warmth. The heat energy is released through condensation (which also transforms the vapor into liquid water). From Wikipedia-
Structurally, a tropical cyclone is a large, rotating system of clouds, wind and thunderstorm activity. The primary energy source of a tropical cyclone is the release of the heat of condensation from water vapor condensing at high altitudes. Because of this, a tropical cyclone can be thought of as a giant vertical heat engine.
The requisite heat usually takes some time to develop, which is why peak hurricane season in the northern hemisphere Atlantic, is late August to early September. To generate the necessary ocean temperatures, it takes nearly the entire summer to warm the ocean. Imagine trying to heat a bowl of water using only a 100-watt light bulb placed overhead. It will happen, of course, though not very soon. Now repeat that experiment with the ocean and the sun. This is why the ocean is warmer in October than in July, despite the (usually) much cooler air temperatures- a lot of water to heat, a lot of water to cool.
Which brings me to my point. The earth is getting progressively warmer- that is beyond dispute- and while some scientists have expressed skepticism as to the cause, the vast majority of climatologists attribute the warming to human causes, most notably the greenhouse effect.
As the mean temperatures have risen, so too have the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. In the simple terms of storms per season, six of the ten most active North Atlantic hurricane season have occurred within the last ten years (1995, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004). So far, the 2005 season is up to twelve named storms (Tropical Storm Lee floundering in the ocean) and a new tropical depression forming as I write this. The season will continue until November 30. Two more named storms and 2005 will tie for tenth.
Moreover, consider this. Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Florida on August 24, 1992. Katrina made landfall on August 25, 2005. These storms are statistically similar in almost every way- strength, duration, damage. This is not unexpected, given that they formed in roughly the same region at roughly the same time. There is one crucial difference- Andrew was the first storm of the season, Katrina is the eleventh (and the third major hurricane) of this season.
As to intensity, consider that a particularly devastating storm usually has its name retired, so that its historical significance can be noted. These storms killed the most people and caused the most damage. In the 1950's, only ten storms had their names retired. In the 60's, eleven hurricanes were retired. In the 70's, the number was eight and in the 80's it was only seven. In the 1990's, fifteen hurricanes had their names retired, as many as in the previous two full decades.
So far in the 2000's, the number is thirteen, and that doesn't count the hurricanes from the current storm season, of which Katrina will definitely be retired, and Dennis and Emily are also likely contenders for retirement.
I am no treehugger. I do not weep for spotted owls. I do not drive a Prius. I am, however, someone who prides himself on his intellect and rationality. I follow the evidence where it leads me, and the evidence is clear. The Earth is getting warmer and it is exacting a terrible toll.
Our "leaders," however, doubt the evidence. The Kyoto Protocol is "not based on science," says one American negotiator. The President dismissed a report released by his own EPA on the subject, and routinely ignores the scientists who shout to their countrymen, chained to the walls of Plato's cave, that it is real and that we can do something about it.
The President alone is not at fault, though. We share a fair bit of the blame. I count myself, with my 50 mile drive to work each day. I could be driving a Prius or I could take the train, and although my Honda CR-V could be much worse in the fuel consumption department, I know it could be much better.
Instead, we merrily drive bigger and bigger cars that burn more gas. We move farther and farther away from the places where we work. We supersize it, we medicate it, and complain about it- but we don't change it. Because that would meaning changing ourselves.
And that, we are simply not willing to do.