TCS Daily

Interview with Dr. Roy Spencer

By James K. Glassman - September 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Dr. Roy Spencer is a principal research scientist for University of Alabama in Huntsville. In the past, he has served as Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where he directed research into the development and application of satellite passive microwave remote sensing techniques for measuring global temperature, water vapor, and precipitation. He currently is the U.S. Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) on NASA's Aqua satellite.

James Glassman: Do you reject the idea that Katrina was in any way manmade?

Dr. Roy Spencer: Well, yes. I think that's an irresponsible position to take. Certainly, the previous huge hurricanes that we had in the 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's, didn't have anything to do with mankind's production of CO2 because we hadn't produced very much by then, and I find it just irresponsible that anyone would claim that this hurricane was caused by global warming.

Glassman: You know, I was looking at the National Hurricane Center's website and they list the 10 most intense hurricanes by barometric pressure. I know you feel we should take those numbers with a grain of salt; but still, these are clearly very intense hurricanes in American history. Now we add Katrina to that. We've got 11. Five of these hurricanes occurred between 1900 and 1935 and only two of them have occurred since 1969. I'm just wondering whether there is any evidence that the intensity of storms is increasing in the United States.

Spencer: Well, that brings up a good point - and that is that there is a known natural cycle in hurricane activity. We have been going through a lull in activity for about the past 20 or 30 years. Hurricane Andrew of 1992 was the early wake-up call that we were heading back into a period of greater hurricane frequency. Indeed, as you mentioned, the 1930's, '40's, '50's - these were the peak periods that had some very intense hurricanes, but of course, there was very little development along the coasts back then.

We're not seeing anything that different from what occurred 40 or 50 or 60 years ago - which is we're back now into a more active part of the natural hurricane cycle.

Glassman: Do you think that there is personal or even governmental responsibility that was shirked here? I mean, this was a storm where the weather service did predict, almost within inches, where it was going to hit.

Spencer: Yes, this storm was well predicted. The problem we have though is that people get used to getting warnings about hurricane hits. And this is because hurricane prediction, just like tornado prediction, is not perfect. People need at least two days notice in order to evacuate and the forecasts just aren't good enough yet - even as good as Katrina was - to be able to forecast every one.

So the tendency is to over-forecast these situations so that people then have some complacency. They say, "Well, the last three times we've been told to evacuate and nothing happened, so I'm going to stay here this time." And that's understandable. That's human nature. And there's really nothing we can do about that because the science of forecasting is not perfect.

Glassman: I want to go to something you have written about in the past, which is the idea that wealth makes health. Just talk to us about the importance of having the sort of wealth that does something to mitigate the effects of a natural disaster.

Spencer: Well, it's clear that wealth equals health and safety. The current technology that we have, with satellites able to monitor where these storms are. Forecasts are getting better and better. We have communications so that instantly people know these things are coming. We have all kinds of modes of transportation to get out of the way. These are the technologies that are saving so many lives now.

This tragedy in New Orleans is a good example where you have tens of thousands of people that that are too poor to own transportation. And of course, we can talk about whether the government should have provided some sort of transportation out of the region, but the point is that here we have this group of people in a very dangerous location living seven feet below sea level. It's known that eventually something like this was going to happen and it indeed has.

Glassman: And certainly the estimates of the economic cost of the Kyoto Protocol going into effect really could set back the efforts of developing countries to acquire the kind of wealth that would in some degree mitigate some of the terrible loss of life and property as a result of natural disasters that are just going to occur.

Spencer: Yes, I agree completely. Little Band-Aid solutions like the Kyoto Protocol aren't going to do enough to have any measurable impact on global warming in the future - no matter what you believe global warming is going to be in the future. Maybe we should be looking more seriously at technological solutions to the problem. That indeed is what the current administration has been advocating most recently.

Glassman: Thank you, Dr. Roy Spencer.

Spencer: Thank you, Jim.

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