Category 5

Thomas Hayden writes about science, medicine and culture. He is the author, with Richard Jadick, of "On Call in Hell: A Doctor's Iraq War Story."

NOV. 30 marks the end of the North Atlantic hurricane season each year, and 2005 was expected to be no different. But that was the year of Katrina, a year that broke all the rules. There were more nameable storms (28, of which a record 15 became hurricanes); a record four Category 5 hurricanes (those with winds in excess of 155 miles per hour); and the most powerful Atlantic hurricane (Wilma) ever recorded -- and of course there was Katrina, the most expensive natural disaster in American history.

While officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami were delivering their end-of-season remarks on Nov. 29 that year, the forecasters behind them were still hard at work. There were so many storms that meteorologists had run out of proper names for them and had begun using Greek letters instead. Hurricane Epsilon was just getting started, and Tropical Storm Zeta would eventually push the 2005 season clear into 2006. That epic year of record-breaking storms and overworked scientists lays the foundation for Chris Mooney’s “Storm World.” But it’s the future of hurricanes, not the past, that gives the book its ominous tone. 2005 was also the year that many scientists started taking seriously the proposition that global warming could make hurricanes far worse than they are today -- more powerful, longer lasting and perhaps more frequent -- and that the 2005 season was just a taste of things to come.

The connection between hurricane strength and global warming is a real, although still hypothetical, possibility. Given that Mooney is a journalist (Washington correspondent for the science magazine Seed), readers might expect him to hype the hypothesis and zero in on worst-case scenarios as he explores hurricane science. The title of his previous book, “The Republican War on Science,” suggests a bias in his discussion of the politics and polemics of global warming. And because his mother’s house in New Orleans was trashed by Katrina, he could be forgiven for being just plain angry and looking to lay blame. But Mooney avoids these pitfalls, delivering a balanced look at the history and current state of climate and weather science and the attendant politics -- including sometimes brutal scientific infighting.


Hurricanes are by far the most powerful storms on the planet, and they easily outdo wildfires, volcanoes and even earthquakes in sheer destructive force. They’re also remarkably complex meteorological phenomena; only recently have scientists begun to truly understand how they work. Radar imaging and “hurricane hunter” flights into the storms, starting in the 1940s, helped; satellite observations, starting in the 1960s, helped even more. With a few more storms and a few more years, computer simulations may help most of all. There are plenty of questions left. For instance, how are these super storms born, and why do some rapidly gain or lose energy while others simply chug along? And therein lies the problem: How do you predict the future of something you don’t fully understand?

The basic case for global warming leading to worse hurricanes goes like this: Hurricanes need warm water to form; all other environmental factors (and there are plenty) being equal, warmer water should mean stronger hurricanes. The world’s oceans are heating up, human activity almost certainly being the cause. Add several recent studies indicating an increase in the most powerful hurricanes over the last few decades, and you’ve got a hot, if not quite smoking, gun.

But you’ve also got counterarguments: among them that the effect of rising sea-surface temperatures is likely to be balanced by other factors; that natural climate cycles may account for the recent run of bad years in the North Atlantic; and that we don’t have enough information about the number and power of past hurricanes to say for sure whether today’s storms are worse than before. The science of hurricane-climate interactions is uncertain enough that even the most critical listener can be swayed by one side’s arguments, then the other’s.

Mooney deftly handles all this complexity, arguing that although global warming will certainly affect hurricanes and may already be doing so, it’s not nearly so certain exactly how the storms will change, nor to what extent. He makes a compelling case, however, that imperfect knowledge is no reason to put off combating global warming (there are lots of other, better understood negative consequences) or shoring up our coastal defenses. Even without stronger storms, our growing hurricane-belt communities are painfully vulnerable. “[T]he truth is that in the end, we never know everything, and we never will,” he concludes. “There is only evidence and the various lenses through which it’s interpreted. And then there’s action and inaction -- both of which have consequences.”

Incorporating interviews as recent as Jan. 29, 2007, “Storm World” was clearly hustled into print. The timeliness is admirable, in light of the rapidly developing science, but haste too has its consequences, and in too many places “Storm World” shows its signs. Mooney is a strong writer, but there are annoying repetitions (to say nothing of the occasional typo). More significant are the continuity problems: Many chapters read like free-standing essays -- familiar characters and locations are reintroduced, and potentially helpful connections to preceding material are overlooked -- rather than parts of an integrated whole. A chapter on the latest developments in hurricane and climate science is tacked on just before the conclusion, so we learn important matters of substance after we’ve heard all the arguments.

Nonetheless, Mooney has a talent for humanizing the science and scientists he discusses, and his accounts of their intermittently heated deliberations comprise some of the best material in the book. That said, he spends perhaps too much time -- albeit entertainingly -- describing the earthy and increasingly bizarre behavior of hurricane-science pioneer and global-warming denier William Gray and not enough discussing other, more neutral researchers’ critiques of the connection between global warming and hurricanes. Surely there could have been one fewer scene of “Mr. Hurricane” playing drunken uncle in run-on tirades at scientific meetings (although Gray’s dismissal of his climate-science adversaries as “prisoners of the Clausius-Clapeyron equation” has to count as one of the all-time great scientific put-downs).


The author’s thorough research is evident throughout, and he does a fine job of sifting through complexities and presenting the science in an engaging and readable package. Science is a messy business, more a matter of hard work, blind alleys and lucky guesses than a straight march from question to answer. Above all, science is about uncertainty and the way we stumble through it looking for clarity. Science is not always elegant and not always even particularly effective. But (to paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy) it’s surely better than any of the alternatives. In “Storm World,” Mooney catches real science in the act and, in so doing, weaves a story as intriguing as it is important.