Published on Sunday, September 25, 2005 by the New York Daily News
Our Grace Period May Be Over
by Michael Daly
As another monster hurricane churned across the Gulf of Mexico, a steady stream of tourists up here in New York paused to take snapshots outside the diner made globally famous by the "Seinfeld" show.
Most, like Michael Morey of Tampa, had a fellow tourist take a photo as they stood at Broadway and W. 112th St. beneath the neon sign reading Tom's Restaurant that appeared in nearly every episode for seven years.
"Use the viewfinder!" Morey called out to a friend across the street.
The friend, Erik Silkevakken, did as instructed and made the shot. Neither man, nor for that matter any other of the tourists who trooped by on Friday afternoon seemed to take the slightest interest in what might occupy the rest of this seven-story building.
Had they considered the question, they might have noticed the fluorescent light fixtures that could be seen in the ceilings of the floors above. This indicated that despite its immediate appearance, 2880 Broadway was not an apartment building.
But there were no signs by the entrance to announce that above the diner from the show about nothing is an institute about everything, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
And, even if "GISS" were announced in neon as bright as "Tom's," few passersby would have recognized this as the research center that recently produced a study which has been described as the "smoking gun of global warming."
"I did not know that," Morey said.
Silkevakken allowed that he lived in a hurricane zone and had gotten a taste of one of these big storms last year.
"I was in the the eye of Frances," he said.
As hurricanes are sometimes referred to as "heat engines," we should all take an interest in the 2005 GISS study based upon precise measurements of ocean temperatures over a 10-year period.
Nobody at the institute was available for an interview on short notice, but the study is summarized on the GISS Web site in terms even a newspaper columnist can grasp: The scientists determined that the Earth is absorbing more solar energy than it emits and that much of this energy is "hiding" in the ocean, as indicated by rising water temperatures.
The scientists further conclude that this energy imbalance is largely due to the greenhouse effect of man-made pollutants. They suggest that by hiding the excess, the ocean is in effect according us a grace period, an opportunity to restore the balance before the environment reaches some catastrophic tipping point.
The GISS study says nothing about hurricanes, but it is hard not to notice on the color-coded map that the watery tracts where the excess energy lurks include the birthplace of the recent monster storms.
In other studies, scientists contend that the warming waters result in more intense, though not necessarily more numerous, hurricanes. They allow that the frequency may be more than the result of 30-to-40-year cycles and that there have been monster storms in the past, notably including one that killed 8,000 in Galveston, Tex., in 1900. They also acknowledge that other factors - such as the concordance in wind direction and velocity at the surface and at the top of the storm - are necessary for the formation of hurricanes.
But hurricanes are powered by heat. Logic even Kramer would recognize would seem to dictate that a general increase in water temperature means a general increase in storm intensity.
A hurricane only becomes possible when the water warms to 80 degrees. The storm is then generated by the temperature difference between the water and the upper air, with the moist warmth shooting 50,000 feet skyward.
And, due to the energy storage detailed by the GISS study, the warming effect on the water extends considerably below the surface. This means the hurricane stirs up less cold water from below as it churns on.
"Cooling reduces hurricane wind speeds, so the less cooling, the stronger the storm," climatologist Kerry Emanuel said by E-mail Friday.
Of course, the intensity of hurricanes may be just a harbinger of more profound climatic changes that could affect even the corner of Broadway and W. 112th St. if we do not take advantage of the grace period suggested by GISS.
Shortly after Morey and Silkevakken of Tampa moved on from Tom's on Friday, you saw a small blue car putt past between two big SUVs. The car was a Toyota Prius, the same model of gas-electric hybrid you have seen "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David drive up to his Santa Monica office some weeks before.
In the publicity leading up to tonight's season premiere of his current show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," David credits his wife with getting him to drive the fuel-conserving Prius.
Laurie David is an environmental activist some mock as a kook. She starts to look pretty sane when you view this hurricane season as seen from that institute about everything above the diner made famous by the show about nothing.
Michael Daly is the first American-born in his family. He attended 16 grammar schools. He graduated Yale University.
© 2005 New York Daily News