Katrina and Cassandra

By Victoria Stoppiello

Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer and used information from the Common Dreams News Center website in preparing this essay, which was first published in September, 2005 in the Chinook Observer based in Long Beach, WA. This is a timely topic.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra had the unfortunate fate of being able to predict the future but having no one believe her. Various Cassandra’s have been predicting dire consequences from our dependence on fossil fuels, the emissions they in turn produce, the global warming that would result, and finally climate change that could have catastrophic results.
The hydrological systems that are the bases of weather are chaotic systems, meaning particular events may appear isolated, but in fact may be part of larger patterns…a larger pattern that includes warmer, wetter winters and hotter, dryer summers in the temperate zones where most of the food on the planet is grown, and more violent monsoons, typhoons and hurricanes. Usually when I’ve thought about this, I’ve thought about the low-lying cities of Bangladesh or islands in the tropics. I’ve pushed away thoughts about our own low-lying metropolises—New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.
Hurricanes develop from clusters of thunderstorms over tropical waters that are 81 degrees or warmer. When winds reach 39 mph they are named; when wind speed reaches 74 mph the storm is upgraded to hurricane status. Earlier this summer, Barry Keim, a climatologist for the State of Louisiana and an assistant professor at LSU, said 2005’s hurricane season could “rival historically significant years such as 1887, which had 19 named storms; 1933, which had 21 named storms; and 1995, which had 19.” Between September and the end of November, 2005, there could be a dozen additional storms, some of which could rival the power of Katrina because the later in the season, the warmer the ocean water and the more intense the storms.
Because they get their energy from ocean surface evaporation, global warming could contribute to more intense and damaging storms. An MIT study backs that prediction: While tropical ocean waters have warmed by only .9 degrees Fahrenheit 1975-2005, Atlantic hurricanes have doubled in power; small temperature increases appear to “pump up” these phenomena. On the other hand, the number of tropical cyclones (hurricanes in the Atlantic, typhoons in the Pacific) has stayed steady at about 90/year.
I used to have an acquaintance who was a weatherman. “Not that kind of weatherman,” he’d joke, referring to the 60’s radicals. “I’m a meteorologist.” His idea of excitement was being based in Astoria, not Kansas. Because forecasters had so few “on the ground” observation posts out on the Pacific Ocean, forecasting the exact type and timing of a West Coast weather system was a challenge…at least then. Being stationed in Kansas was like being demoted; given that most of our continental weather moves from west to east, by the time it gets to Kansas, observers and equipment from California, across the Sierras, through the Great Basin, and over the Rocky Mountains have provided lots more data. Satellite images are fine-tuned with local observations. As a result, predicting Midwest weather accurately is relatively easy.
During late summer 2005, we saw modern weather forecasting at work, predicting the power and landfall of the giant hurricane that wreaked havoc, taken an untold number of lives, and severely damaged if not destroyed one of America’s most beloved cities. In spite of warnings, many people didn’t leave New Orleans, some because they didn’t have the means, some because they didn’t believe the “Cassandra’s” of the national weather service and thought they could ride out this storm just as they had others in the past. They’re not alone.
My meteorologist friend attended an international conference on climate change in the late 1980’s. Being exposed, even superficially, to what he was learning about global warming, climate change, and potentially catastrophic weather events has stuck with me, but the Bush administration barely believed in global warming, much less climate change. Weather scientists have been predicting warming temperatures, melting icecaps and glaciers, and climate change, including more volatile storm events, for more than twenty years, but few of us paid attention. The Bush administration chose to ignore the Kyoto protocol in favor of maintaining the American standard of living, contending that supporting the protocol would damage our economy by limiting our greenhouse gas emissions that in turn contribute to global warming.
The weather people have become the Cassandra’s of our time. Unfortunately, it isn’t just a few people who didn’t listen and decided to ride out the storm; it’s a mindset among our government policy makers, now and in the past, that has led to calculated decisions to ignore potential consequences.