A 24-7 Science Lesson

September 12, 2017

Since Harvey took shape as a tropical depression on August 23rd through today’s coverage of Irma, José and Katia, we’ve been treated to ongoing, fascinating in-depth scientific coverage on every channel.  The good news is that this coverage is apparently finding an audience, even beating out TV ratings for the opening week-end of the NFL season! 

We have learned that storms intensify quickly when passing over patches of warm ocean water. Harvey’s path took it over water 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding Gulf of Mexico, moving its winds from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4 in only a day’s time.  We have learned that Irma’s arrival ‘sucked’ the Tampa Bay ocean bed dry—albeit temporarily—though less through suction than through fierce winds pushing water away from the coast. This phenomenon, although textbook perfect, is apparently an uncommon occurrence. We got a lesson in probability as experts explained the real meaning of a 500-year flood. Not that such a massive flood occurs only once every 500 years, but rather that there is a 1-in-500 (0.2%) chance of such a flood occurring in any given year.  

Hurricane Irma seen from space

In fact, the odds are probably much worse. Houston has had three consecutive years of massive floods, so complacency is dangerous. Even more severe storms may follow on Irma’s heels this season alone. Lee, Maria, Nate and Ophelia, already named although not yet formed, may follow.  Their paths, yet to be determined, may wreak even more havoc than Harvey and Irma.

Cable and regular news outlets found willing audiences for the round-the-clock coverage, even in areas far removed from the storms’ track. Yes, there were stories about remarkable heroism and good deeds as a welcome respite from the scenes of devastation. But the steady drumbeat of scientific knowledge coming over the airwaves was inescapable. And with that drumbeat comes the responsibility for all of us to participate in the necessary decision-making that will better prepare us for these fierce storms in the future.

It is a population that understands STEM—and not just meteorologists or engineers or climate scientists or politicians—who will be the critical thinkers demanding informed public policy. Yes, Mother Nature can be fierce and unpredictable, but knowledge empowers us. We need citizens who push for better zoning policies, more up-to-date data on flood plains, better evacuation strategies, and deeper understanding of earth science. Knowledgeable voters will support good public policy and make wise personal decisions.

If mega-storms and massive floods become routine, STEM literacy can be a matter of life or death.

Tags: science