Sun, Sep 11, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Linking global warming to super storms

The terrible hurricanes of the past still atmospheric scientists today

By Ben Sandilands  /  THE OBSERVER , CANBERRA

The ghosts of Galveston returned to haunt hurricane researchers this week, on the 105th anniversary of the Texan city's destruction by the only "super storm" to have rivalled Katrina's drowning of New Orleans.

Even in the research files of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's (CSIRO) Climate Change Risk and Impact Division in Melbourne, there are images of a lost city of immense beauty captured before the giant storm of Sept. 8, 1900 that turned it into piles of corpses and smashed timber.

Galveston never reclaimed is early glory, with nearby Houston taking over its role as a center of commerce and culture. Its streets were littered with between 6,000 and 8,000 dead, its ornate and fanciful 19th century architecture broken apart and blown into the Gulf of Mexico to become flotsam.

Also in the archives are records of Cyclone Mahina, of March 1899 that killed 400 people in Bathurst Bay, Queensland, three quarters of them aboard pearling luggers, and another 100 Aboriginal people living on the mainland.

It was the deadliest and most violent storm ever recorded in Australia, generating 10m high waves and 300kph winds, and outstripping the better known Cyclone Tracy disaster of Christmas Eve, 1974, which destroyed the northern port city of Darwin and killed 65 people.

Hurricanes -- or cyclones or typhoons as they are variously known -- start as low pressure cells that suck up the latent heat energy of dense moist air lying over areas of sea surface temperature of at least 26oC.

But because many of the oceanic storm generating areas now have unprecedentedly high surface temperatures, in the case of the Gulf of Mexico, over 30oC, the principal researcher at the division, Penny Whetton, has spent a week fielding media questions as to whether Katrina was caused by global warming.

"The short answer is we can't prove a link," Whetton says.

But she can explain why a link may well be established in the future.

"The data or signals from tropical storms is very hard to decipher," she says. "We have learned that they are at their most frequent north of the equator they are generally least active south of the equator, and vice versa."

"They also vary in frequency and intensity over very long cycles, of around 20-50 years depending on how you define them."

Whetton says there are four tests of climate change being a factor in violent tropical storms.

"They are: whether these storms are more intense, whether there is a change in their frequency, whether they are beginning to track further north or south of the equator, and whether they are starting to appear in new locations within the narrow latitudinal bands they generally occupy -- roughly 20 degrees north to 20 degrees south yet remaining clear of the actual equator," she says.

She says there is no clear signal of a change in frequency of hurricanes, either in terms of occurring more or less frequently, after taking into account normal cyclical variations.

There is no evidence of cyclones or hurricanes tracking further north or south into higher latitudes.

And with one exception, there has been no evidence of these storms developing over areas where the sea surface temperature has always been warm enough for their development, but prevailing higher level winds tear the hurricane apart before it can turn into the giant circular masses of rotating storm clouds so apparent in weather satellite images of their progress.

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