The scientist Kerry Emanuel He was driving his car from Maine to Boston when he got a call. «He is the winner of the Frontiers of Knowledge Award 2020 in the category of Climate changeThe voice on the other side of the phone (and the world) announced. “Are you sure you haven’t got the wrong person?” Emanuel replied. Because despite having spent the last four decades studying the physics behind hurricanes at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he affirms that it had never occurred to him that he would be recognized by the jury of the BBVA Foundation, made up of the leading researchers in their area. A few months later, this time in Bilbao, the venue for the awards ceremony and about to collect his award, the American researcher recalls that episode and talks with ABC about his specialty, the ‘mini-hurricanes’ of the Mediterranean or climate change. providing a different and more optimistic look to the predominant catastrophic trend.
– How did you become interested in this field?
-It all started when they asked me to teach a course on climate in the tropics. There I began to study about hurricanes and I realized that there was very little theory on the subject. So I thought it was necessary for someone to fix it. And that’s how I got fully into hurricane physics.
-For a while you were chasing and recording tornadoes, what was that experience good for?
-Yes, at the beginning of my career I recorded tornadoes, which are actually a different phenomenon. My goal was to understand things like wind speed. To get to the basic understanding of a phenomenon, the applications do not usually occur at first, but you try to understand the physics without more. However, in this specific case, applications did emerge, such as, if you know how they work, you can anticipate them or see how they respond to climate change.
-He is one of the greatest experts precisely in understanding how hurricanes and climate change are related. At what point did you see this correspondence clear?
-When I was developing a theory about hurricanes, part of the theory was about the strength of the hurricane depending on the conditions of the ocean surface. That’s when the idea arose that greenhouse gases from the surface caused the speed of the hurricane to increase. We also saw that as climate change unfolded, hurricanes were stronger. And this was not noticed by me alone, but by all of us who study this field.
-Are they stronger and also more numerous?
-We still don’t have enough data to talk about trends, so the models and theory are not robust enough to talk about frequency. There could even be fewer hurricanes and the storms are weaker… We still have to continue studying the phenomenon to arrive at these answers.
-Your models predict that the intensity of hurricanes will grow by 5% in the next few years. Do we have to prepare for more natural disasters? Can this trend be reversed?
-One way to solve it is carbon capture, which basically involves removing this gas from the atmosphere. But today it is a very expensive technology that is still being investigated. Hurricanes have already intensified and this is important for several reasons. Among them, because the damages do not occur in a homogeneous way throughout the planet. By this I mean that a speed of 5 meters per second may not seem like a lot, but if you are in an area where the buildings are not prepared, we have a problem. You have to work on adaptation. And we have to bear in mind that more and more people are living in hurricane risk areas: since the 1970s, the number of people living in these places has multiplied by three. That is why I and many other people are concerned about the impact on the population of these phenomena. We will have to do things like smarter, more resilient buildings, put walls on the coasts …
-Many questions for a phenomenon that has accompanied us since we emerged as a species …
-There are some questions that remain and that are fundamental. Especially starting with how they are formed. Once we know that, we can predict them more or less effectively. The next question to be resolved will be how exactly they relate to climate change, not only how climate change affects hurricanes, but also the feedback from hurricanes to the phenomenon of climate change.
-Even so, we are faced with a totally dynamic phenomenon that changes every time. How are we doing to predict them with the tools we now have?
-The truth, I think that right now we are not doing particularly well. Maybe the Atlantic Ocean, but only about 12% of the world’s hurricanes occur there. We are interested because it is an area of great aircraft traffic, but what happens to the remaining 88%? In those places, only satellite monitoring is carried out, and the problem is that we only have data from the 1980s, so we cannot find trends with that information. We should apply ourselves more and do it better, in different contexts and technology. For example, with drones powered by solar panels that measure different aspects that help us solve many of the questions that we still ask ourselves today. And they would not be expensive equipment.
‘Medicanes’, the hurricanes of the Mediterranean
In September 1996, a Mediterranean tropical cyclone broke out over the Balearic Islands. Although it was a more or less usual phenomenon, during its formation a powerful Atlantic cold front and a second warm front associated with a large-scale low point were united. This ‘perfect storm’ produced northeast winds that swept across the Iberian peninsula, spreading east to the Mediterranean. In parallel, an abundant accumulation of humidity in the lower troposphere was found on the islands. On September 12 it began to rain on the Valencian coast, and a hurricane eye – although on a smaller scale than those that occur in the Caribbean – swept the islands. On the night of September 13, the ‘strange hurricane’ hit the coast of southern Italy. It was not the first time that the natives had seen something like this: ten years before, a similar phenomenon with winds of up to 100 kilometers per hour swept the Palma Boat Show. They are known as ‘medicanes’ or Mediterranean hurricanes, and experts have been tracking them for just a decade.
How did you become interested in the ‘medicanes phenomenon?
-In 2005 I took a sabbatical year and went to Mallorca. Working with the University of the Balearic Islands, with Professor Romualdo Romero, we began to investigate this particular question. There we developed a method to be able to predict these medications, while creating mathematical models to see their evolution.
-And what has been discovered to date?
-In the Mediterranean there are areas where we have observed that this phenomenon has decreased in frequency, such as in the west, while in the eastern part of the Black Sea it seems that they have been growing. Yes, it is true that it seems that there are more storms, more rains … Therefore, they are risk phenomena for the Balearic Islands, the eastern coast of Spain and other more southern areas. However, it should be noted that medicanes are not as strong as tropical hurricanes, although they are also dangerous.
-Can we say that they are basically a kind of ‘mini-hurricanes’?
-In a tropical environment you have all the conditions for hurricanes to occur. In contrast, in the Mediterranean, it is rare that all these ‘ingredients’ come together for a hurricane to form, so they are smaller. But, in reality, they respond to the same physics.
Climate change from optimism
-Many reports indicate that climate change is at an irreversible point. What can we do? Are we really facing the end of the world as we know it?
-I like to pose this question in a different way than you usually ask. I am more about ‘pulling’ than ‘pushing’; By this I mean that if we have the appropriate technologies that obtain energy without producing greenhouse gases or equipment to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, the rest will follow. It must be remembered that the combustion of fossil fuels kills around nine million people a year in the world only by inhaling particles, not by climate change. If we compare these deaths with those of nuclear energy, for example, they are three times that of fossil fuels. But here we do not pay much attention because it is not like when a plane crashes: these people die one by one, little by little. And besides, we are running out of fossil fuels. That is why they must be replaced. And it is better to do it as soon as possible looking for clean energy. However, we still have a way to go: we handle wind energy well, but it only contributes 40% because we do not yet have effective ways of storing the energy and sending it to the grid. There are engineering limitations, so agencies should encourage not only science, but also industry to generate the necessary innovations. It’s not that I have to tell someone ‘you have to stop eating this or that’ or ‘stop doing this or that’, but rather that you have to find optimal technical solutions.
-This optimistic vision is not heard much today.
-It is true that we are taking risks, but when a catastrophe occurs it is easy to blame climate change. There are those who are skeptical of this issue, as has been shown, but also those who use it as a lever. I believe that changes are needed that we can all adopt. For example, I don’t know if you’ve ever driven an electric car. But I tell you, if you do, you will never go back to a fuel one: it’s quiet, clean, it has fast acceleration… They’re great. And that conversion is going to happen, regardless of climate change. There are many reasons to be optimistic because, whatever the policies, a proper transition must be made to make the world a better one.
-We have electric cars, but it also seems that space tourism is landing, which many experts point to as highly polluting. Will we never learn?
-It’s a question of culture. It depends on whether we live in a society that respects and loves the environment or one that only sees it as a resource to be exploited. I have hope in young people, whom I see more and more aware of environmental issues. Much more than our generation.