The Gathering Winds

A satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico shows Hurricane Rita, one of several powerful storms that wrought destruction along U.S. coasts this year.
A satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico shows Hurricane Rita, one of several powerful storms that wrought destruction along U.S. coasts this year. (National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration Via Reuters)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 27, 2005

First, there was Opal (1995). Then Fran (1996), Floyd (1999) and Allison (2001).

But the string of deadly billion-dollar storms blowing in from the Atlantic was far from over.

In 2004, the quartet of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne ravaged Florida in rapid succession and set records for damage.

Then, somehow, it got worse.

With Katrina, the inundation of New Orleans and an Atlantic storm season so active it stretched forecasters beyond the normal alphabetical list of names into the Greek of Alpha, Beta and Gamma, 2005 racked up more storm deaths and destruction than the previous 10 years -- combined .

So although the close of this year's hurricane season on Nov. 30 may allow residents along the Southeast coast to heave a sigh of relief, it also points to a growing worry: What is going on with the weather?

With the surge in hurricanes since 1995, droves of people moving to affected coastal areas and the federal government spending billions in storm relief annually, the question has rarely seemed so urgent.

"People talk about what is 'normal' for hurricanes, but there's a new definition of 'normal' now," said Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado. "This is out of people's range of experience. But there will be far more activity and far more destruction."

Many storm researchers now agree that a decade or more of similarly rough seasons -- similar to the heightened storm activity that began in 1995 -- lies ahead.

But at the same time that the trio of Katrina, Rita and Wilma were battering Southeastern coasts, a controversy was brewing over the reasons for the rise in hurricane havoc. At issue: Is it merely a natural fluctuation or, more ominously, a product of global warming?

Until recently, a rough consensus in the small world of tropical cyclone specialists had held that there was no evidence of unnatural hurricane trends over the 20th century. Hurricane activity over the Atlantic has fluctuated naturally over decades going back as far as 1900, and it was unlikely that global warming could be having a significant impact, many researchers said.

But a pair of scientific papers published this year detected an unexpected spike in storm intensity over the past several decades, suggesting that global warming might already be having an effect. The research set off a passionate and sometimes personal debate in the small community of storm scientists.


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