October 6, 2005
With Tropical Storm Tammy making landfall on the north Florida coast as we write this entry, it's probably premature to make any final pronouncements about this year's tropical cyclone season other than stating the obvious: it's been another bad one. According to the National Hurricane Center, as of the end of last month, there had been roughly twice as many named Atlantic basin storms and hurricanes as the long term averages would have predicted for this time of the year. And we still have eight weeks to go before the official end of hurricane season. At this rate, we'll run out of names on the official roster maintained by the World Meteorological Organization. After Vince and Wilma, it's on to the Greek alphabet. Let's hope we don't have to go there. Our sailboat "Little Gidding" is parked on the hard in central Florida and remains unscathed by this year's storm hyperactivity; we'd like to keep it that way.
It's difficult to exaggerate the tragic losses resulting from Katrina and Rita, this season's two worst hurricanes. On Tuesday, state health officials announced they were ending the search for Katrina's victims and put the death toll at 1,209. This will likely give Katrina the dubious distinction as the third deadliest hurricane on record in the US. According to the Insurance Service Office, however, it handily wins first prize in terms of being the costliest disaster in American history: $34.4 billion and rising (second place Hurricane Andrew in 1992 inflicted a mere $20.8 billion in inflation-adjusted property damage). The numbers are still coming in for Rita, but it looks like another 100 deaths and $4 billion in damages can be attributed to that hurricane -- numbers that would seem huge if not compared to the utter devastation caused by the storm that preceded it by less than a month.
The recent hurricanes have had a very direct effect on the Gulf coast boating community. Katrina alone damaged or destroyed more than 75,000 boats and yachts, for a total loss estimated at $2 billion. Many marinas, boat yards, and yacht clubs were obliterated. Our friend and cruising guide author, Claiborne Young, wrote to say, "The scenes I have seen stretching from Mobile Bay to New Orleans, of boats stacked atop one another in crazy quilt collections, are nothing short of mind boggling ... Personally, I never thought to see destruction worse than that caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 around Charleston, SC. What I'm seeing on the Mississippi coastline surpasses even the wreck and havoc brought about by that great storm. It will be months (perhaps many months) before cruisers can even consider plying the waters west of Mobile Bay."
It will take some time and a good deal of resources, but the boating community will eventually rebuild itself in the affected areas. After all, it's not like the Gulf coast hasn't been battered by hurricanes before. But the recent storms have raised issues that go beyond the need merely to repair the immediate damage, extensive as it is.
First, there are energy issues. The disruption of oil and gas supplies caused by the hurricanes, and the fuel price hikes that occurred immediately afterwards, have brought into sharp relief how much we depend on reliable energy sources. In a region that produces one-third of the US crude oil imports, Katrina and Rita together destroyed 109 oil platforms and 5 drilling rigs. Forty percent of the manned sites in the Gulf remain evacuated today, resulting in a paralysis of 90% of crude production and 72% of natural gas output. The damage felt at the nation's gas pumps this week was an average price of $3.14 per gallon; Americans are now paying on average 58% more to fuel their vehicles than they did at the beginning of the year.
It's tempting to dismiss the spike in fuel prices as a short-lived blip caused by a temporary reduction in supply, whether that's been the result of domestic natural disasters or foreign military conflicts. But what if it's more than that, what if we're actually running out of the stuff? There's a growing body of scientific opinion that asserts we're fast approaching the point of "peak" oil production, after which time the world's petroleum output will steadily decline, new discoveries not being able to keep up with depleting reserves. Whether the turning point is as early as five years from now, as some predict (see www.peakoil.ie), or a few years further along, the fact remains that a global energy crunch seems inevitable. Rates of energy use continue to grow with China and, to a lesser extent, India now looming as potentially prodigious consumers of the world's dwindling supply of fossil fuels.
So, what does this all have to do with boating? Possibly, quite a lot. The buying public has long demonstrated a sensitivity to soaring prices. Last month, the two largest US auto makers, GM and Ford, saw their sales of SUVs and trucks tumble by 50%. If high fuel prices persist, it's not unreasonable to expect there will be a boating equivalent to what's happening in the car industry. We should expect that power boaters will be drawn to vessels with smaller or more fuel efficient engines. They might even -- heaven forbid -- make the switch to sail, reversing current trends. This is precisely what happened in the mid-1970s when OPEC unilaterally raised oil prices during the 1973-74 Arab-Israeli war. Domestic sailboat production as a proportion of overall boat production nearly doubled in a few short years, briefly approaching 20% of total output.
Today, sailboats account for only about 9% of the boats owned by Americans, but perhaps we're on the verge of a sailing revival. A shift away from power may already be underway among owners of smaller vessels. Last year, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, sales of canoes and kayaks rose by 8% and 4% respectively in the US, while the number of personal water craft sold dropped by 1.4%. David, who has never been fond of noisy PWCs, is quietly rejoicing.
The other broader issue coming out of this year's disastrous hurricane season is related to these energy matters: the question of climate change. Now that it's pretty well universally accepted in the scientific community that greenhouse gases are heating up the planet, a number of commentators have argued a link between global warming and the apparent increase in tropical storms. Yesterday's Washington Post reported that some large insurance companies -- not usually viewed as being particularly "green" in their outlook -- are siding with environmental groups "to argue that global warming exists and that man-made causes are adding to the severity and cost of natural catastrophes".
Most meteorologists, however, urge caution before blaming specific weather events such as Katrina and Rita on broader climate trends. The National Hurricane Center concludes that, "more study is needed to better understand the complex interaction between these storms and the tropical atmosphere/ocean". Preliminary evidence, however, suggests that while the number of tropical cyclones worldwide seems unchanged, their regional frequency may be affected and their peak intensity may have increased (see www.nhc.noaa.gov). Indeed, the Atlantic basin has seen a significant increase in the number of strong hurricanes since 1995 -- which, curiously enough, was the year we started cruising in tropical cyclone prone waters.
Whether or not there's a connection between hurricanes and global warming, there is no question that climate change is and will be affecting how we cruise. Just in the eleven years we've been out there, we've noticed a serious decline in the health and vitality of coral reefs in the southwest north Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea. A number of factors are probably at play, but increased sea surface temperature is surely one of them. In the future, we're told that the extra quantities of cold fresh water created by the melting polar ice cap will have a disruptive impact on ocean currents, specifically the Gulf Stream. The cruising season in New England is short enough as it is, but the prospects of encountering ice bergs off Nantucket in July may not be that far away.
The solution to problems of decreasing energy supplies and increasing greenhouse gases is the same: consume less fossil fuel. We intend to do our bit. In fact, we usually have little choice but to conserve energy onboard our boat because, other than sun and wind, there isn't a lot of it readily available in the places we go cruising. But first we have to make it through hurricane season ...
David & Eileen