As a science reporter, you've covered a lot of violent weather phenomena. What was your most thrilling weather experience?
Two come to mind. One was stepping off the C-130 plane at the South Pole and walking into the tunnel that led to the old South Pole station. The air inside the tunnel was around minus 50 degrees, and it was like breathing in icicles. The other was flying through the eye of Hurricane Ivan as it headed across the Gulf towards Mobile, Alabama. I had been hoping to experience what's known as the coliseum effect, with the clouds of the eye wall slanting back like the walls of an open-air stadium to reveal a bright blue sky. Instead, I entered an eerie fairyland filled with gray clouds that looked like turreted castles. Like many big hurricanes, Ivan was going through multiple cycles of building and rebuilding its eye wall, a process that caused its strength to wax, then wane. I'd expected to feel scared but, to my surprise, found that I wasn't as the pilot expertly threaded the plane in and out. The pitch and yaw did make me feel a little woozy, and for that reason, I came to relish the moments of calm as we glided through the eye. We also had some moments of calm when we flew out ahead of Ivan, but down below us was a big ship dwarfed by gigantic waves. The pilot exclaimed, "Get out of there!" That was when I realized that flying through a hurricane was far preferable to experiencing one while out at sea or on land.
I've heard that your family has quite a history with violent weather—did your grandmother really get struck by lightning twice?
I doubt if she herself was struck, but she was in a mountain cabin that was struck during a storm, and she described falling down on the floor unconscious. It was just one of the stories that was part of my childhood, and I was very impressed. My grandmother made it sound like kind of a cool thing, and I thought, "Maybe I should get struck by lightning to see what it feels like!"
And your mother survived a tornado?
Yes, and in fact recently I went back to the house where she lived, and I saw the big window that crashed inward while she and my aunt were there—but luckily not on top of them. That was one of the stories too. I don't know why I've got all these stories about weather following me around. Weather is not the only thing I write about, but I'm known for liking the most extreme, most violent parts of nature, everything from the big bang to hurricanes and tornadoes.
How did you develop this fascination with the scariest forces of nature?
My mother and my aunt were real naturalists. My aunt used to take me out to turn over rocks in the garden and pick up garter snakes. As a result, I've never had a fear of snakes. I've always thought they were fascinating creatures because I handled them when I was 4. My mother knew the Latin and the common names of every wildflower there is. So I think what I developed early on was a broad interest in the natural world and the forces that shape it.
Have you ever been caught in a hurricane yourself?
There is a family story about me as a baby standing at the window, looking out at a hurricane and clapping my hands with glee. I learned in the course of doing this story that my hurricane was almost certainly the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944. I don't remember it myself, I just remember being told about it. On September 12, the day after my first birthday, it sank a destroyer, the USS Warrington, off the Florida coast. At the time, my father was a naval officer, based in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. I'm sure both he and my mother were very concerned.
Do you remember any other hurricanes from when you were a kid?
I still remember 1954, when Edna and Carol hammered North Carolina, which is where I grew up. Then in October of that year came Hazel, which caused the greatest storm surge in North Carolina history. We lived in the Piedmont section of the state, quite a distance from the coast, but even so, we experienced very high winds and torrential rains. I was down at Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, recently, which was where Hugo came through in 1989. The place where I was staying had a big picture book of photos showing the aftermath of Hugo, and I immediately recognized this old inn, the Tip Top Inn, a rambling, oceanfront establishment where my family and I used to spend two weeks every summer. It had been lifted off its foundations, and it was never ever rebuilt. I took a walk down to the beach and tried to figure out where it had been, among the condos that took its place; they never rebuilt the inn.
There seem to be condos everywhere now—do you think the government needs to discourage Americans from building so many homes along the coasts?
I think that would be a very good idea, but the problem is that so much has been built already. And I think it's interesting that a lot of that building occurred in the post-1970 era, when really big, damaging hurricanes were comparatively rare. That doesn't mean that such storms never hit—Hugo is a very good example—but they certainly did not happen as frequently as in previous decades. As human beings we all share this problem of not internalizing something until we experience it ourselves. We might hear our parents or grandparents tell us about things like hurricanes or volcanic eruptions or tsunamis or whatever, but we probably won't act on that knowledge until we experience a major disaster for ourselves. So I think a lot of the development along the Atlantic Seaboard and Gulf Coast took place in a climate of naiveté. And of course a lot of people benefit financially from selling hot coastal property. I'm not in favor of banning all coastal development. But I think its true costs should be discussed and sensible policies adopted. Because of the buildup of coastal populations, hurricanes have grown to be very, very expensive disasters. Katrina is the most recent example. And while that was a very large storm with a huge geographic footprint and devastating storm surge, it wasn't a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. We need to keep in mind that more intense storms do occur.
Do you think the greenhouse effect and global warming are responsible for the increase in hurricanes, or do you subscribe to the multi-decadal oscillation theory? Do you find convincing the idea that humanity can influence the global climate?
I've long been interested in the hidden rhythms of the natural climate system, of which El Niño (about which I wrote a book) is such a striking example. The idea that there would be something like El Niño that operates on longer time scales—over decades, over centuries—I've long found quite attractive. And so when meteorologist Stanley Goldenberg and his colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published their paper establishing a link between hurricanes and a multi-decadal oscillation of sea surface temperatures, I was inclined to take them seriously. But I also take very seriously the alarm many scientists have sounded over our influence on the earth’s system. Six billion people add up to a geophysical force.
So six billion people are enough to throw off the powerful rhythms of global climate?
The way I see it, the natural forces that govern the climate system don't care where the changes are coming from or whether they're natural or not. When I look at the fierce debate now taking place over hurricanes and global warming, I am inclined to look at each side as a piece of a much larger puzzle. I don't see the debate as framing an either-or choice; I see it as a rather different and much more important question. And that is, given that we're now players in the climate system, how important are we? That's the question that’s now been raised in relation to hurricanes, and it's a question that I, for one, find extremely disturbing. We may luck out and change things only a little bit, or we may have extremely profound effects. I compare it to the sorcerer's apprentice; that is, we're tinkering with major forces that we haven't a clue about how to control, and in our case there's no big wizard coming home who's going to bail us out.