For more than a decade, the question of how global warming is affecting the scariest storms on the planet—hurricanes—has been shot through with uncertainty. The chief reason is technological: In many parts of the world, storm strengths are estimated solely based on satellite images. Technologies and techniques for doing this have improved over time, meaning that there is always a problem with claiming that today’s storms are stronger than yesterday’s. After all, they might just be better observed.
That’s why, despite expectations that global warming will make hurricanes stronger—as well as massive societal consequences if more powerful storms are slamming coastlines—scientific authorities like the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have demurred on the hurricane/climate question. Most recently, the IPCC earlier this year said it had “low confidence” that global warming is worsening hurricanes.
But just maybe, a new scientific paper has managed to get past this long-standing data problem. The study, just out in the Journal of Climate from hurricane and satellite expert Jim Kossin of the National Climatic Data Center and his colleagues, seeks to create a completely consistent database of hurricane satellite images that will finally allow for apples-to-apples comparisons. How? “We can’t take bad data and make it good, because that’s adding information that we don’t have,” explains Kossin. “But we can take the good information and make it worse.”
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