Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Lovely Rita, Meteorology Maid

5:15 update: Rita was upgraded between advisories to Category 5, max winds 165 mph; min pressure by recon is 914 mb. The forecast track has been shifted toward the right (in the direction of Galveston/Houston). Hurricane watch is in effect for Port Mansfield Texas to Cameron Louisiana.

The Washington metro area weather is lovely as Rita rampages across the Gulf of Mexico. Temperatures are mostly in the low to mid 80s, although to the south Stafford and Fredericksburg are near or at 90 this afternoon. Dewpoints are in the mid 50s or lower. As Dan said earlier, warm and dry will be the rule here for the next several days. Showers and thunderstorms which developed yesterday were too far to the south and east to help the drought in the immediate area.

Tropical Beat

Hurricane Rita strengthened dramatically overnight to Category 4. The morning advisory estimated maximum winds of 140 mph because the reconnaissance plane was prevented from flying by mechanical problems, but satellite analysis indicated even higher strength. This was updated at 2:15 to 150 mph and a minimum pressure headed for record territory at 920 mb. As with Katrina, a huge eye has developed, and the size of the circulation has expanded as well, easily stretching from the northern Yucatan across half of Cuba to southern Florida. At 11am, the storm was centered 755 miles east-southeast of Corpus Christi, Texas. It was moving westward at 13 mph. The expected track puts the center on the Texas coast early Saturday, probably between Corpus Christi and Galveston, but there is still a large cone of uncertainty.

Tropical Storm Philippe is still around, but it is looking more ragged as it moves north ward to the east of Bermuda.

Broadcast News

The Diane Rehm show on WAMU-FM (88.5) had a discussion this morning with Dr. Judith Curry of Georgia Tech, a co-author of the Science magazine hurricane study we cited last Thursday, and Dr. William Gray of Colorado State, who predicts seasonal tropical storm activity. Also on the panel was Dr. Anthony Busalacchi of the University of Maryland. The main conclusion of Dr. Curry's study is that there has been about a doubling in the number of severe tropical cyclones (Category 4 and 5) since 1970. This is despite the fact that the overall number of storms has not increased. As she explained on the show, the study was careful not to draw any causal connections between global warming and the higher storm intensity. (Some general media reports have not been as precise in their interpretations.) Dr. Gray claims that the study and its conclusions are flawed on several grounds:
  1. The period of record is not long enough.
  2. The researchers don't have enough experience.
  3. It's too hard to distinguish between categories 3 and 4.
  4. The agreement between the statistical data and model results is irrelevant.
  5. All variability is explained by a multi-decadal oscillation.
Fortunately, the connection between congeniality and quality of science is not very strong, but to this observer, Dr. Curry came across as much more reasonable than Dr. Gray. It didn't quite descend to the level of a classic Saturday Night Live "Jane, you ignorant slut", but Dr. Gray did have a "my way or the highway" view of the data, implying that only he had been doing this long enough to know how to properly do the analysis. He also had what can only be described as a contemptuous attitude toward computer modeling, using what sounded like the technical term "hooey" to describe model results.

In a sad sign of how much science has become politicized, one of the first callers, at about 34 minutes after the hour, questioned the source of funding for the researchers. (In a profile in this month's Discover magazine, Dr. Gray implies that his NOAA funding was cut off by the Clinton administration for political reasons.)

The show is scheduled to be repeated tonight at 9, and it is also available on the show web site.

Dr. Patrick Michaels of UVA has a critique of Dr. Curry's Science article at Tech Central Station.

Google is a new financial supporter of the NOVA science series on PBS, and the search term typed into the screen display in the underwriting message on the show last night was "Meteorology". Go Google!

Added later:
An analysis of Gray's point of view at RealClimate the following year ("Gray and Muddy Thinking about Global Warming") generated a lively debate.

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