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Recovery operations in the Gulf Coast are picking up steam as many basic services have been restored to those affected by Hurricane Katrina. But as residents and businesses head back to the region with questions about rebuilding, scientists and policy makers across the country are grappling with a different question: What, if anything, did global warming and America's consumption habits have to do with this disaster?

"To take a fairly localized weather event and try to say that global warming is responsible for that, there just isn't anybody that can say that with any degree of certainty," says David Ridenour, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.

But author Ross Gelbspan, who recently wrote an op-ed in USA Today, would take issue with Ridenour.

"Global warming doesn't make more hurricanes," contends Gelbspan. "[But] it makes hurricanes much more intense than they would have normally been."

Gelbspan points out that both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita started off small when they were off the coast of Florida and then "mushroomed into megastorms when [they] went over the warm gulf waters."

According to the global warming theory, greenhouse gases emitted by factories, cars and other machinery are being trapped in the atmosphere, causing the earth's surface (especially ocean waters) to heat up. Warmer waters mean stronger tropical storms.

Robert Korty, a post-doctoral scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), acknowledges recent studies which show a correlation between category 4 and 5 storms and sea temperatures, but he believes the answer is not as simple as Gelbspan suggests.

"It's absurd to attribute a cause for any particular weather event to [any one thing]," Korty says. "[Weather is] just too complex a system to do that."

"We really only have about three decades of quality data," Korty notes, explaining that most global measurements of hurricane activity have only been available since satellite technology came into heavy use in the 1970s.

Not only is there a dearth of long-term data to support the global warming theory, some scientists believe that global warming might actually combat strong hurricanes, according to Ridenour.

"One school of thought says that high global temperatures decrease the possibility of hurricanes because it increases the effect of El Nino," Ridenour notes, referring to the warm west-to-east wind that can counteract strong east-to-west oriented tropical storms.

Even Gelbspan agrees that "El Nino acts as a windshield. It changes wind patterns and shores up Atlantic wind developments before they become strong hurricanes."

While scientists continue to ponder the effects of global warming on a hurricane's strength, there is another factor which may be more responsible for much of the damage to New Orleans: sea level. Much of the flooding in the Crescent city was exacerbated because that city lies below sea level. A study released by Penn State University demonstrated that melting polar ice caps have caused the average sea level to rise around the world by more than an inch since 1995.

"[This is a result of] melting glaciers, more freshwater flowing in the ocean and a reflection of warming water expanding," says Gelbspan, who hopes that those looking to rebuild New Orleans and other coastal cities take this study to heart.

"It would be a shame if they spent all that money without taking this into consideration."

— Eric Crouch Medill News Service

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