Top Hurricane Scientist: ‘Katrina Would Not Have Been As Intense In 1980′

Posted by Brad Johnson Thu, 27 Aug 2020 13:35:00 GMT

Originally published September 5, 2008 on the ThinkProgress Wonk Room.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology climatologist Kerry Emanuel says that he would be “surprised” if global warming “were not a big factor” in intensifying Hurricane Katrina’s destructive power. Katrina, the costliest and third deadliest hurricane in United States history, intensified to Category Five strength, with peak sustained winds over 170 mph, over extremely warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico before its record storm surge devastated the Gulf Coast.

Emanuel compared the meteorological conditions in which Hurricane Katrina developed in 2005 to the existing conditions twenty-five years earlier in 1980. Using his model of tropical storm potential intensity, which uses at determining factors such as sea and air temperature and wind shear, he found that Katrina would have been significantly weaker twenty-five years earlier. When asked how to characterize his findings, Emanuel replied:

I think it is correct to say that Katrina would not have been as intense in 1980. What part of that to attribute to global warming is tricky, but I would be surprised if it were not a big factor.

Katrina potential intensity chart
NCEP/NCAR Re-analysis potential intensity for 1980 and 2005 (Emanuel, 2008)

Dr. Emanuel, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Influential People of 2006, is the author of dozens of influential papers on tropical meteorology and climatology, including the 2005 Nature paper, “Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years.” Dr. Emanuel has authored the popular science books Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes and What We Know About Climate Change, and is profiled in ScienceProgress editor Chris Mooney’s book, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming.