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Environment

New NHC Director: "Jury Still Out" on Hurricanes and Global Warming

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 17, 2007 3:10 AM
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Meteorologist Bill Proenza is the new director of the National Hurricane Center, having recently replaced Max Mayfield in that role. In other words, he's now our top coastal defender, the guy we're going to be seeing a lot of on TV the next time there's a storm threatening the U.S. Proenza has a long history with tropical weather, having not only worked at the National Hurricane Center analyzing some of the earliest satellite images of hurricanes in the 1960s, but also having participated in numerous storm flights with the "hurricane hunters." More recently, he has served as the director of the National Weather Service's Southern Regional Headquarters, stationed in Fort Worth, Texas. Proenza gave a press conference today at the AMS meeting. I was there, and was very impressed by how likeable a guy he is, as well as by his dedication to protecting our most vulnerable areas. He repeated a very important argument that many previous National Hurricane Center directors have also made: We are making ourselves very susceptible to hurricanes due to our massive migration to the coastlines. Indeed, many of the people currently flocking to the coasts have little or no experience with hurricanes; perhaps as many as half of the inhabitants of coastal areas lack a hurricane readiness plan. In the Q & A, I got to ask Proenza a question about hurricanes and global warming. I don't know whether he's had to address this yet, but his predecessor, Mayfield, had briefly touched on the subject in testimony before Congress in September of 2005 (PDF). There, Mayfield stated that the current active period in the Atlantic for hurricanes, which began in 1995, had not been "enhanced substantially by global warming." Proenza's answer to me was, I think, subtly different. "I think the jury's still out as far as the science is concerned in that arena," he said. Proenza went on to note that our existing hurricane record is merely a "a grain of sand in the beaches of time"--a nice poetic phrase--meaning that it limits the inferences we can draw. However, he added that "we've taken 130 years and evaluated the cycles that have occurred over that period of time, and we can see certain periods, multidecadal periods. We're using that as one indicator to say that we're now in a period of more [hurricane activity]." But when it comes to the question of whether global warming might be also playing a role, Proenza stated that "we don't know that yet. We're not saying that it doesn't have a contribution, we're just saying that that determination [hasn't been made yet]." (As noted previously, Kerry Emanuel seems a lot closer to having made that determination.) Finally, Proenza observed that Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center was giving a talk on this very subject today...and sure enough, I'm off to that next...

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