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Saturday, August 25, 2012


As Isaac prepares to strike Haiti, let us reflect on those "monsters of nature" called "hurricanes".

Early on Saturday, the storm was getting better organised and was packing winds of nearly 110 km/h with higher gusts as it approached the country.

It is noteworthy that approximately 400,000 Haitians still live in temporary tent camps following the 2010 earthquake that killed 250,000 and levelled Port-au-Prince, and they have nowhere to go.

The streets grew empty on Saturday and only a few vehicles ventured out after dark. Earlier, long lines formed outside supermarkets as people stocked up on supplies.

The frequency of tropical cyclone formation over the Atlantic so far for this year seems unusual. The early “scientific” predictions of a moderate season have been largely falsified; in fact, the intensity of activity had to be revised upward!

Undoubtedly, the very nature of weather forecasting or meteorology makes it an imprecise science depending on the images captured by US, UK satellites and "Hurricane Hunter" aircrafts provided by the US which penetrate "the eye" of the weather system. The information therefrom is then used to generate hypotheses using computer models. These models are based on different assumptions and calculations, some utilizing statistics, some physics calculations and others both.

But the fact the predictions are based on models leaves much room for error. A scientific model is only a tentative framework which helps us to give meaning to natural/physical phenomena.

Let us use atomic theory as an example to illustrate the point.

Atomic theory tells us that the atom is the basic unit of all matter; however, the atom is only a model - an invention by scientists - since nobody has ever seen any atom. That is why, in scientific circles, we say that the atom was "invented" (as opposed to "discovered") by scientists because nobody has seen it. However, the fundamental fact remains that the concept of the atom has enormous explanatory power – it helps us to explain so many different types of phenomena – and nobody has scientifically refuted it.

In fact, scientists have gone as far as "splitting" the atom into sub-atomic particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons) and have used their findings in that regard to explain, among other things, electrical and nuclear phenomena. For example, they explain electricity in terms of the flow of electrons through metals and nuclear energy as the result of the splitting of the nucleus of the atom (nuclear fission)!

Indeed, the natural sciences are imperfect “disciplines” driven by man’s pursuit for interpretations of nature; and hurricanes are part of the cycle of nature.

Why hurricanes are destructive to life and property, they are essential to the maintaining a “balance of nature” in the sense that they help regulate the thermal balance of our planet and help fight global warming and related phenomena. In fact, pundits equate them with “natural air conditioners” designed to cool down the earth. They control global warming through a process known as “energy inter-conversion”. They extract the “excess heat energy” from the sea and convert it to “motion energy” and it is this motion energy that results in destructive “hurricane force” winds, giant sea swells and flooding of unbelievable proportions.

Perhaps, there is a need for hurricane scientist to start getting his “hurricane science” right! A good scientific model predicts and leaves behind facts. Apparently, the scientific model used for making hurricane predictions needs refinement in that regard. It is too much like “Marxist” and “Freudian” pseudoscience having to making post hoc modification hypotheses to its original predictive models to bring them in line with the facts!

Perhaps, the contention that the scientists working in that field do not seem have factored all the variables in the “prediction” equation may be justifiable. I suspect that they may not have comprehensively assessed the “heat variable” in that equation; or perhaps there may be a reasonable degree of “unexplained variance” which they have not paid much attention to. The source of the variability may be in their dataset or it may be statistical and external to the data set.

Notwithstanding, the information generated is real-time and critically important. The predictions may not be accurate but the real-time tracking information helps to save lives and property.

Finally, I believe that there’s a lot of work to be done by the authorities (Met Office, NEMO and its allies) in educating the general public about tropical cyclones. The education should not only be limited to the hurricane season and it should include a focus on the nature of hurricane phenomena.

I say this in the context of the surprised generated by the passage of Tropical Storm Isaac. While several bulletins were issued for the same, I did not hear the authorities disseminate certain basic but critical information about the tropical weather system; and despite the proliferation of bulletins, the irony is many persons and even businesses were caught unprepared. Why? Many persons did not understand that – because the centre of the storm passed to the north of us meant that the gusts and rain would hit us in the opposite direction (that is from West to East).

My understanding is that the guests at one of our prestigious hotels in the south of the island suffered much discomfort because of the lack of this specific information.

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