If the US public suffers from many more Katrina-style storms, maybe they will pressure the government to focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, instead of getting side tracked by political items like flag burning and gay marriage. Weather researcher Kevin Trenberth, who works for the US government, says, “The global warming influence provides a new background level that increases the risk of future enhancements in hurricane activity.” As one editorial writer said recently, “If only gay sex caused global warming,” implying that then the problem would be addressed immediately.

A new study by Trenberth and Dennis Shea of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) shows that global warming accounted for around half of the extra hurricane-fueling warmth in the waters of the tropical North Atlantic in 2005, while natural cycles were only a minor factor.

The study contradicts recent claims that natural cycles are responsible for the upturn in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995. It also adds support to the idea that hurricane seasons will become more active as global temperatures continue to rise. Last year produced a record 28 tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic, and they were stronger than ever: hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma all reached Category 5 strength.

Trenberth and Shea’s research focuses on an increase in ocean temperatures, since hurricanes are storms that form over the ocean, then move inland. During much of last year’s hurricane season, sea-surface temperatures were a record 1.7 degrees F above the 1901-1970 average.

By analyzing worldwide data on sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) since the early 20th century, Trenberth and Shea were able to calculate the causes of the increased temperatures, showing that global warming explained about 0.8 degrees F of this rise. Aftereffects from the 2004-05 El Nino accounted for about 0.4 degrees F. A natural 60-to-80-year ocean cycle accounted for less than 0.2 degrees F of the rise, and the remainder is due to year-to-year variability in temperatures.

Trenberth says that global warming does not guarantee that each year will set records for hurricanes?last year, an unfortunate group of variations occurred, which accelerated the global warming effect. However, long-term ocean warming should raise the baseline of hurricane activity. In other words, this is not the time to invest in beach front property.

Art credit: gimp-savvy.com

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