Judith Curry looks about as controversial as a cup of coffee.
Unassuming in a librarian kind of way and not one to bother with small talk, Curry behaves just as one would expect the chairwoman of Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to behave. She doesn't make grandiose claims. She sticks to the specific areas of her research. And she has a tendency to understate findings about the possible link between global warming and hurricanes so as not to rattle the average Joe.
She certainly has reason to be cautious.
On Oct. 25, after presenting some of her research at a congressional briefing, Curry became an unwitting player in the ongoing debate that pits corporate-interest politics against mainstream science. In the aftermath of her testimony, Curry was bewildered by how the media reacted to her presentation in Washington. And she continues to be struck by people's willingness to discount what to her and her peers is dispassionate, empirical data.
"Science is becoming a matter of opinion," she says. "You're seeing this with evolution. People decide whether they want to believe it or not. And that's allowing people to decide whether or not we want to believe global warming, in spite of the scientific evidence."
Ironically, Curry's escapade began when she and three other researchers set out to debunk a fellow scientist's claim that global warming was causing more frequent -- and more intense -- hurricanes.
On June 17, a study published in the journal Science, written by the head of the Climate and Global Dynamics Division at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, reported that global warming was causing more numerous and more intense hurricanes to form in the north Atlantic Ocean.
Curry and her research partners were particularly troubled by what they considered to be the study's limited view. The author only looked at the north Atlantic.
"We said, 'Wait a minute, you can't say anything about global warming just by looking at north Atlantic hurricanes," Curry says. "And we set out to disprove what he found and say that what you saw in the north Atlantic wasn't happening globally."
Curry and her team, including lead author and Georgia Tech professor Peter Webster, studied every hurricane since 1970, the year satellites first began collecting atmospheric data and images. Their findings suggest that the Science study was both right and wrong.
The number of hurricanes hasn't increased globally, Curry and her team found. But storm intensity has. In fact, the research team found that the number of Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes has doubled since 1970.
Here's where it gets controversial: The study also attributes the increase in storm intensity to the global increase in tropical sea-surface temperatures. Still, the study stops short of saying that the increase in tropical sea-surface temperatures is caused by global warming.
"You can't blame any one storm or even one hurricane season on global warming," Curry says, "but we are seeing a statistical shift toward more intense hurricanes."
Curry points out, however, that the vast majority of published and peer-reviewed research attributes the increase in sea-surface temperatures to emissions of greenhouse gases -- that cause global warming.
Curry and her team's research was published in the Sept. 16 issue of Science. The timing couldn't have been more uncanny.
Parts of New Orleans were still underwater, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. And the storm that eventually would become Hurricane Rita would advance to a tropical depression the following day. Once Hurricane Rita formed and crossed into the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it only took 24 hours for the storm to grow from a Category 2 to the most intense Category 5 hurricane on record in the Atlantic basin.
"So you can imagine the attention that was already focused on hurricanes," Curry recalls. "And our paper comes out right between those two hurricanes, and it really focused debate on this issue."
Curry's phone began ringing with requests for interviews. It also just so happened that she'd been scheduled to speak at a congressional briefing called by the American Meteorological Society on the global warming-hurricane link. Also on the bill was Massachusetts Institute of Technology atmospheric science professor Kerry Emmanuel, widely considered the world's foremost expert on hurricanes. The same week that the Curry-Webster study was published, Emmanuel published a similar study in Nature that linked human-induced global warming with increasing hurricane strength.
On the day of the briefing, about 100 people -- scientists, congressional aides, lawyers and lobbyists -- gathered in a banquet room on the ground floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Curry's presentation of her team's hurricane study started shortly after noon and lasted about an hour. Curry then spent another hour responding to questions from the audience.
"We were very gratified by the response we got," Curry says.
But as the briefing began to wind down, John Shanahan, a former National Mining Association official and aide to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., launched an attack against the scientists. His accusations, though brief, would cause a ripple effect -- and would prove to be an adept political maneuver to cast doubt on and draw attention from the scientists' research.
"You people are espousing minority views that a vast majority of scientists dispute," Shanahan said to Curry and Emmanuel, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on the briefing.
Shanahan's boss, Inhofe, had made headlines two years earlier by claiming in a speech from the Senate floor that carbon dioxide was actually beneficial to the environment. Inhofe also said at the time, "With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it."
It should be noted that, since Inhofe first ran for federal office in 1993, oil and gas companies have given more to each of his campaigns -- upward of $2 million -- than any other industry.
Curry was able to brush off Shanahan's inflammatory comments because they "took up maybe five minutes of the time ... and we had over an hour of responses of mostly people trying to understand the science," she says.
But she couldn't dismiss the way Inhofe's actions played out in the press.
A Gannett News Service article on the congressional briefing didn't even mention the findings of the Curry-Webster research. Instead, the article, "Scientists disagree on factors behind stronger hurricanes," quoted scientists not present at the briefing, some of whom said hurricane intensity has nothing to do with global warming, and others who agree with Curry that storm intensity was related to the Earth's warming.
The AJC article, "Charge of bias stirs up Senate briefing on global warming," devoted 12 paragraphs to the accusations made by Shanahan and the rift among some global warming scientists. Only three paragraphs described Curry's actual research.
According to Anthony Socci, the American Meteorological Society senior fellow who organized the briefing, Shanahan successfully distracted attention from Curry's and Emmanuel's studies, giving undue credibility to views based on less evidence than Curry and Emmanuel used.
"The problem is grounded in [the] journalistic perspective on the issue of balance," Socci says. "Everybody has got an opinion ... but we're trying to ground it in science, so that we're not bringing in people that just have opinions. That's the difference in the scientific process."
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