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Risky Scenarios


Here we are, just days from the official start of hurricane season. We've already seen our first named storm, Andrea. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has just joined pretty much every other major hurricane forecaster in saying that we're looking at a dangerously active year ahead in the Atlantic, much more active than 2006 (although probably not comparable to the devastating season of 2005).

And now, in a pair of illuminating articles, the New York Times Tuesday science section has given us precisely the kind of perspective we need on how to deal with--and think about--the risks we face.

The first article, by Cornelia Dean, is about the relationship between hurricanes and global warming. Are storms stronger already, or will they be in the future? The answer is that while there's a general expectation of stronger (although not necessarily more numerous) storms, there's also a massive amount that scientists don't know yet and continue to debate about. Recently published research tends to raise more questions than answers. That's how science works, especially on hot button questions that have only recently come into major focus.

But when it come to policymaking, that sense of uncertainty doesn't have to be a curse. After all, we already know that we're extremely vulnerable to hurricanes in the United States. Scientists who continue to debate the precise details of how global warming will change these storms strongly agree that we must do a far better job of addressing the nation's coastal overpopulation problem. As the Times puts it: "53 percent of Americans live within 50 miles of a coast."

That's staggering. It's inviting disaster. By raising sea levels and (probably) intensifying storms, global warming will only make things worse; but we should be strengthening coastal protections (and retreating from, or rethinking insurance policies for, some areas) no matter what. We're already overexposed.

The second article, by John Schwartz, shows how New Orleans--the U.S. city that has understandably been forced to think the hardest about hurricane risks lately, although it's far from the only disaster prone area -- is applying this "we're-already-vulnerable-so-just-act" kind of thinking.

As everyone now realizes, the city's previous hurricane protections were woefully inadequate. So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is using sophisticated computer models to reassess risk by studying all the possible scenarios for storms that could hit New Orleans in the future. Variations on storm size, strength, speed, rainfall, and track are all being examined -- as are global warming scenarios that could modify some of these variables.

Once again, the idea here is to move forward -- even in the absence of perfect knowledge. We can at least get a sense of the range of possibilities for storms that will strike New Orleans in the future, even if we can't know exactly what's going to be coming at us in any given year (including this one).

A pressing question, though, is whether other cities -- Houston, Miami, and many others -- are doing the kind of sophisticated modeling that New Orleans is now engaged in. Are they too thinking seriously about risk, rather than waiting for certainty about how hurricanes are going to change?

Let's hope so. We live in a complicated world, and we can never know everything.

But that doesn't mean that when highly predictable bad things happen, we have a right to act surprised.