Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, Feeling the 'Big Love'
Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer created the HBO series Big Love, now in its second season. It's about a man (Bill Paxton) and his three wives (Chloe Sevigny, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin). They've broken from the Mormon church and still practice polygamy — a tradition disavowed by mainline Mormons. Olsen and Scheffer are credited as writers and producers on the series. This year, they won a Writer's Guild Award for their work.
Other segments from the episode on August 1, 2007
DATE August 1, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: TV producers Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer on their
show "Big Love" on HBO
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Big Love")
Mr. BILL PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Ronnie, there's one more thing. My
house is three houses.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Ronnie) What? Rentals?
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) No, I live in all three houses.
Actor #1: (As Ronnie) All three?
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) My family, they're connected.
Actor #1: (As Ronnie) All three houses?
Mr. PAXTON: That's right. Big family.
Actor #1: (As Ronnie) I see.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Bill Paxton in a scene from the HBO series "Big Love," trying
to subtly convey that he's a polygamist with a different wife in each of his
three suburban Salt Lake City homes. "Big Love" is in its second season. My
guests are the creators, Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, who have also written
many of the episodes. They're writing partners and life partners.
In "Big Love," Bill Paxton plays Bill Henrickson. He grew up on a religious
compound in Utah that practices polygamy. The members of the compound
describe themselves as fundamentalist Mormons, even though the Mormon Church
doesn't recognize them and disavows polygamy and compounds like this one.
Bill left the compound at age 14, and his ongoing conflicts with its leaders
have been threatening his family, his chain of Wal-Mart-like stores, and maybe
even his life.
In this scene, the family is dealing with the visit of Margene's mother.
Margene is the youngest and most recent of Bill's three wives, and she's been
afraid to tell her mother the truth about her marriage. But her mother found
out the truth in a conversation with the middle wife, Nicki. In this scene,
Margene's mother comes over for lunch and Margene learns her mother knows.
(Soundbite of "Big Love")
Ms. AMANDA SEYFRIED (As Margene) Grandma's here. Hi! Lunch is served.
Unidentified Actress #1: (In character) So, little Miss Perfect isn't so
Ms. SEYFRIED: (As Margene) What are you talking about?
Actress #1: (In character) I know--everything.
Ms. SEYFRIED: (As Margene) I'm sorry. I was going to tell you.
Actress #1: (In character) Oh, how could you do this to me?
Ms. SEYFRIED: (As Margene) Mom, we are four people who are devoted to each
Actress #1: (In character) Spare me the details.
Ms. SEYFRIED: (As Margene) No, Mom! We're going to be together in this life
and the next.
Actress #1: (In character) Oh, whoo, whoo, whoo.
Ms. SEYFRIED: (As Margene) Well, don't make fun of my beliefs.
Actress #1: (In character) That's not a belief. It's perverted.
Ms. SEYFRIED: (As Margene) Wait! How is being married to three people I'm
devoted to worse than your revolving door boyfriends?
Actress #1: (In character) How could you say that to me? I didn't raise you
Ms. SEYFRIED: (As Margene) Well, let's not talk about how you raised me,
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Mark Olsen, Will Scheffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the
beginning. How did you come up with the idea to use polygamy as a way to
explore the American family?
Mr. MARK OLSEN: The idea pretty much came out fully formed on a now-infamous
drive back from a family vacation, family Christmas in Nebraska, where my
family is from, back to New York, where we were living and working at that
time, and I guess it was, what, 2000, 2001?
Mr. WILL SCHEFFER: Yeah. Around them.
Mr. OLSEN: Yeah. And day two of the drive back, it was like January 2nd, we
were heading out of West Virginia for the last stretch in the Pennsylvania
Turnpike and we were just batting around ideas of possible new shows for the
upcoming season that we might like to develop and the word out of my mouth
was, `I know. Polygamy,' and Will's response was...
Mr. SCHEFFER: My response was `Yuck!' No one's going to want to watch a show
about polygamists. And, you know, I realized that Mark was really talking
about, you know, a family drama that had the concept of marriage deeply
embedded in it. It was a perfect show for HBO, I realized, and he showed me
with the research that there are so many stories there that it was such a
subversive way to look at telling stories about marriage and family. And Mark
always says this, that it was a time at which the Republican majority was sort
of, you know, really owning the idea of family values.
Mr. OLSEN: Now I can date the concept. It was shortly after the Bush
inauguration, and I became somewhat offended at some of the excesses of that
dialogue, particularly notions of what is a family? What isn't a family?
What is a marriage? What isn't a marriage? What society chooses to value in
both those arenas, and this was sort of our response to it.
GROSS: It's a strange response because--well, for a lot of obvious reasons,
but let me play a clip from the show in which the head of the compound--and
the polygamist family that's the main characters in this have broken away from
the compound--but the head of a compound that's polygamous is speaking with a
journalist who's interviewing him, and he's explaining polygamy and explaining
their values and explaining the principle. And this is Harry Dean Stanton as
the head of the compound.
(Soundbite of "Big Love")
Mr. HARRY DEAN STANTON: (As Roman Grant) You see, the principle of plural
marriage was God's sacred gift to us. But in 1890, the so-called leaders in
Salt Lake buckled to outside pressure and repudiated polygamy and the
teachings of our beloved prophet, Joseph Smith. We alone have kept the
principle alive. We are the one true church.
Unidentified Actress #2: (As journalist) And the violence, the coercion of
young girls, the abuses committed against children?
Mr. STANTON: (As Roman Grant) We root it out. We crush it. I have 31
children and 187 grandchildren, and I love every one of them. A lot of times
their mothers will say, `Leave Grandpa alone,' and I'll say, `Let them come to
me, precious darlings all of them.'
Mr. MATT ROSS: (As Alby Grant) And the gays, Papa.
Mr. STANTON: (As Roman Grant) What?
Mr. ROSS: (As Alby Grant) The homosexuals.
Mr. STANTON: (As Roman Grant) Oh, the gays. If the Supreme Court says yes
to the privacy rights of homosexual persons, surely it's time to recognize our
rights to live in peace, too.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a scene from "Big Love" with Harry Dean Stanton. I should
mention, he's the bad guy. He's the heavy. He's the villain in this.
Mr. OLSEN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And that's such an interesting argument--line that he says at the end
there because the argument is usually made the other way around, that, you
know, if homosexuals are given the right to marry, then what's to prevent
polygamy and what's to prevent a man from marrying an animal, you know? So
what--tell me about writing--and you wrote this episode--tell me about writing
this monologue for Harry Dean Stanton and ending it with his remark about
homosexuality, that if they get their rights then certainly polygamists
Mr. SCHEFFER: Well, the idea was never meant to only be a metaphor for gay
marriage or anything like that, and I think that the interesting thing about
polygamy right now in Utah and Arizona is that the polygamists themselves who
live on the compounds are using this argument in order to drive the agenda to
decriminalize polygamy. We never made, you know, an attempt to connect the
two on the show. We don't take a stand on being for polygamy or against
polygamy. Certainly the kind of crimes that are committed on the compounds in
Utah we don't defend them in any way, and there's a lot of heinous stuff going
on in the dark recesses of the compounds of Utah and Arizona.
GROSS: Well, let's get back to the main family that the story follows.
They've broken away from this compound, and it's, you know, a husband and
three wives. What do you think their understanding is of why they're
Mr. OLSEN: I think it depends on which member of the family we're talking
about. I don't think there is a collective response to that. I think Bill,
who is the one who made a strong journey away from polygamy when he was thrown
out of the compound, you know, as a teenager and certainly repudiated its
abuses, he would claim to have seen the light. He would claim to have been
given instruction on how to return to, you know, the underlying principles of
polygamy, redacted of the abuses. I think that's his mission. He thinks it's
God-given. That's what he's about.
I think Barb, his first wife, at least initially, was largely along for the
ride. It was her deep love for her husband, Bill, who she had been married to
prior to polygamy for a good 12 years, that she believed in him, she had faith
in him. And although she did not have personal testimony for the principle,
she believed that he did, and through that, vicariously, she was willing to go
along with it.
Mr. SCHEFFER: She's the only character who has a strong LDS upbringing and
background. So this would have been, you know, kind of very iconoclastic of
her to make this move to follow Bill. It basically risks excommunication from
the Mormon Church, which she had a strong connection with...
Mr. OLSEN: Mm-hmm.
Mr. SCHEFFER: ...growing up and through her family.
Mr. OLSEN: Nicki, Bill's second wife, she's altogether a different can of
worms. She grew up on the compound. This is, you know, status quo normal for
her, this life, this belief, this passion. And then youngest wife, Margene,
is sort of, you know, a waif that had been casting about on the seas of
domestic discord as she grew up, and she saw a family that worked. She saw a
family that, to her nonjudgmental eyes, appeared to love each other, and she
gravitated toward becoming a member of that family. So it's a complex stew.
GROSS: I just have to ask you about casting Chloe Sevigny. She is one of the
three wives married to the Bill Paxton character in "Big Love," and she's the
most traditional, the most repressed, the least overtly sexual, and what's so
interesting about casting Chloe Sevigny in this role is that in many of her
roles, she's been, you know, very extroverted and very sexualized, so it's in
some ways really casting against type, but she's so effective in this very
Mr. OLSEN: Yeah, it's funny. We actually wrote the part for Chloe. We'd
never met her. We only knew her from her film work, from her characterization
of Lana Tisdel in "Boys Don't Cry," but she was who we crafted the role in
mind for. And it was oddly satisfying--we heard the tapes of a Sunstone
conference in Salt Lake City, a group of progressive Mormons who sit around
and talk about current issues and whatnot, and they had a group of polygamist
women in to review the show, and they were talking about the character of
Nicki, and all of them applauded that character saying, `Oh my god, she is our
worst nightmare. We all worry about our husbands bringing home a Nicki into
the fold and having to deal with a Nicki.' So, you know, Chloe's doing a great
job with it.
Mr. SCHEFFER: And sometimes you just know if you cast someone like, you
know, against type, that you're going to get this tremendous kind of subtext,
you know, I guess for lack of a better word, and Nicki is so manipulative and
unconscious in what she does, and I think that Chloe manages to bring so much,
you know, repressed energy, maybe because of the against-type casting...
Mr. SCHEFFER: ...that we did with her.
GROSS: You had to learn some new language to write for these characters,
words like "plural marriage." What are some of the words that are used to
describe polygamy that you had to learn to write in the language?
Mr. OLSEN: It's not only learning to write in the language, it's learning to
say without cringing. You know, the first time my eyes stumbled on the word
"a sister wife," that in and of itself--you know, my first response is it made
my skin crawl.
GROSS: That's the word that wives use to describe their fellow wives within
the marriage, sister wives?
Mr. OLSEN: Correct, correct. And at a minimum it describes a relationship
that was a little too close for comfort to me.
Mr. SCHEFFER: And again, like kind of going toward the things that make you
go `yuck' with this kind of material is the word "patriarchy," which has a
different kind of meaning in this structure. It's got a larger religious
context in the Mormon religion and what they call themselves, the
fundamentalist Mormons, who are the, you know, who are the practicing
polygamists in compound life. Our characters are independent polygamists.
They live apart from both the Mormon Church and the fundamentalist Mormon
GROSS: My guests are Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, creators of the HBO series
"Big Love." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guests are Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, creators of the HBO series
"Big Love," which is in its second season. It's about a polygamist family in
suburban Salt Lake City that split from a polygamist compound. The family is
made up of a husband and three wives. The wives alternate nights with their
husband, but lately he's been so overwhelmed by pressures at work and deadly
conflicts with the compound that's he's asked his wives for one night off each
week. In this scene, Bill, played by Bill Paxton, is in bed with his senior
wife, Barb, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn. She's angered by his proposal, and
he's defending the idea.
(Soundbite of "Big Love")
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Honey! (Unintelligible)...four or five
nights a week to catch up. I just need one right now, just for a while.
Ms. JEANNE TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Well, one night off--one night
off is one thing but the fact that you need it scheduled on a consistent
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Please don't be this way. I don't get to
hunt or fish anymore.
Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) But if you can't juggle everything,
then you should let something else go, not your wives.
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Well, there's nothing to let go. You know,
I spend all day trying to keep ahead of the eight-ball.
Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) You don't have to take over Utah. You
don't have to be Wal-Mart for us. We don't need it.
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Well somebody's got to bring home the
bacon. And the bacon. And the bacon.
Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) All right. Downtime is one thing. A
night off is different. This is what you signed up for.
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) I want it put on the schedule so it's
official. No one gets hurt like last night.
Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) So it is about one of us?
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) No! I'm not asking for the moon. Please,
just schedule it. If you don't, I'll pick the night myself.
Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Fine, you don't want to share a bed
(Soundbite of a heavy thump)
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Why are you being like this?
Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) I'm sleeping on the couch until you're
ready to shoulder the responsibilities you signed up for.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) If you want some alone time, you can
(Soundbite of door closing)
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I asked the creators of "Big Love" about this part of the storyline.
Did you see this as a kind of polygamist metaphor for the strain on couples
who want to have sex with each other and just can't find the time and don't
have the energy...
Mr. OLSEN: Sure.
GROSS: ...but it's like magnified by three times because it's a polygamist
Mr. OLSEN: Well, exactly. In that sense, it's uber family and it's uber
modern American family where, you know, there's two, three breadwinners in the
family, and each breadwinner holds down two, three jobs and you know,
everyone's multitasking with this and with that and, you know, society's
become so competitive and so ramped up and amped up that success does depend
on spreading one's self very thin and so, too, in the polygamous world.
Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah, moving faster than the speed of light to have it all,
and, you know, that's a lot of what we deal with in the show, you know, even
among the sister wives. You know, what does it mean to have it all and, you
know, how can people hold down all of these different dreams?
GROSS: Now, it's kind of paradoxical, I think that, you know, because the
sexual relationships within this polygamous family are a part of what this
show is about, there are some sex scenes in it. And I would imagine that
polygamous families are probably very, very conservative when it comes to any
kind of sexual depiction in literature, movies, television. So even though
multiple partners is so much a part of their lifestyle, the depicting of
anything relating to sex, I imagine, would be very religiously offensive to
Mr. OLSEN: Truthfully, we're still trying to get that one right. We start
from the premise that we do know they have sex. Thirty-five to forty children
per family tends to suggest that. So the issue becomes, how does it become
depicted? And we feel like we're getting closer on that one.
Mr. SCHEFFER: Well, they're obviously discreet. You know, this is a
religious principle that they're all living, so there's a discretion, I think,
in the way that they would go about their sexual politics or, you know, how
they would arrange things, and then clearly we've got this dark side, you
know, which the compound is sort of a window to of much more kind of, you
know, dark portrayals of sexuality that you have vis-a-vis Warren Jeffs and
some of the crimes that are being prosecuted, which, you know, are happening
in the headlines now.
Mr. OLSEN: Yeah, I have to say although after our first year aired, many in
the polygamous community--who responded very favorably to having the show
portray their lifestyle and bringing them forward into the national
conversation, still drew the line at that the way we represented their sexual
lives and how we treated sex in the show.
Mr. OLSEN: And I think most of them were women, and I think most of them are
quite sincere. And I think there was a tremendous amount of validity to what
they said. However, by the same token, there is a theme of sex that runs
through the polygamous communities, and sometimes it can be abusive and
sometimes it's, you know, less pernicious, but one of the critics of polygamy,
a guy named John Llewellyn...(unintelligible)...in Utah, says, `Guess what,
folks? At the end of the day, this is about sex. Yeah, whether the people
want to admit it or not. From the male point of view, this is about having
wives and having sex. So there's a debate there, you know, as to how it gets
portrayed and what's really going on here.
GROSS: Well, one of the things that makes it interesting is that, rightly or
wrongly, I think we associate fundamentalist faiths with a certain amount of
Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah. I mean, exactly. And there is definitely a kind of
patriarchal repression that goes on on the compounds, in terms of how they use
women, how they, you know, repress women, actually. And yet, in our family,
we sort of see a sexual politics that's a little bit different, and the women
have more of a modern...
Mr. SCHEFFER: ...a modern outlook, you know, in terms of how they view their
sexual politics in the family. You know, how Barb, in this current episode
uses a kind of withholding of sex to, you know, politically control Bill in
this particular episode that's coming out this week. And, you know, also the
way that the women, and the sister wives, use each other in order to support
themselves in this family is different. It's more modern, it's more feminist.
They, you know, have a different way of caretaking the children that enables
other wives to go out and bring home the bacon and pursue careers. It's just
a little bit--there is a kind of feminist thread that exists in our family
which I think does exist also in the independent polygamists that we've heard
from since the show's been out.
GROSS: Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer co-created the HBO series "Big Love"
which is now in its second season. They'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mark Olsen and Will
Scheffer, the creators of the HBO series "Big Love," which is now in its
second season. It's about a polygamist family that broke away from a
polygamist compound in Utah. The compound refers to itself as Mormon
fundamentalist, but the Mormon Church doesn't recognize them and disavows
polygamy and compounds like this one.
Now, you are writing partners and producing partners, but you're also life
partners. Did you meet first and then start writing together or start writing
together and then become a couple?
Mr. OLSEN: We started writing apart. Had a first date, which was a writerly
version of `I'll show you mine if you show me yours,' which was a swapping of
scripts and once they passed muster, then we entered into a deeper
GROSS: Wait, wait. If you didn't like each other's scripts, you wouldn't
have gone any further, you think?
Mr. OLSEN: Not a prayer. Not a prayer. A relationship does have to be
built at least on a little bit of respect.
Mr. SCHEFFER: It's very true, very true. But, yeah, that was 16 years ago,
but, yeah, we definitely supported each other in our independent writing
careers and we edited and gave, you know, a lot of feedback, and then it was
sort of, `Well, we're doing so much work on each other's scripts we might as
well just collaborate all the time.'
GROSS: Now, are there any stories that you've put into "Big Love" that come
from either of your families?
Mr. OLSEN: Oh my gosh.
Mr. SCHEFFER: So much.
Mr. OLSEN: A lot. A whole lot. My family's sort of based in a small town
in mid-state Nebraska, Hastings, Nebraska. Goes back generations on all sides
of the family, and it's a huge, tumbling, intergenerational family that, you
know--people tell bad jokes, people get their feelings hurt, people drink too
much, people have lesser instincts and nobler instincts and, you know, it's
just a huge stew of love and hypocrisy and generosity and...
Mr. SCHEFFER: What I really love about Mark's family--and I think this
relates somehow to "Big Love" because it's such a specific world that we're
dramatizing in Sandy, Utah--but Mark's family, there's not like a kind of, a
lot of therapeutic psychobabble. You know, whereas I'm from New Jersey and
New York, and there's a lot of that kind of relationship talk and, you know,
therapeutic talk, and Mark's family is kind of immune...
Mr. OLSEN: Pre-Freudian.
Mr. SCHEFFER: Pre-Freudian. Immune from that and so that kind of helps us
with our enormously red-state kind of dramatization of this Mormon world, you
know, and so I really like that about Mark's family, and we can use a lot of
stuff. And definitely Mark's mother has been, I have to say, a matriarch that
we've drawn on, and we do draw on continuously, for our matriarchs.
Mr. OLSEN: Mm.
Mr. OLSEN: Let's see, I think of Lois and the pistol in the glove
compartment of her car. That was--my mom had her legendary pistol for a good
couple of years, and she was actually wrestled to the ground at a Bob Dole
rally at the Hastings Chautauqua in 19--what, '76...
GROSS: Wait, wait. What was she doing with a pistol at a Bob Dole rally?
Mr. OLSEN: Oh, she was carrying it in her purse. It was a harmless old
woman who was going to the Bob Dole for Vice President Rally with her little
pistol in her purse.
GROSS: And she was going to support him, not shoot him, right?
Mr. OLSEN: Well, unfortunately, she didn't like what he had to say about
some foreign policy and some farm subsidy issues and she did pull the gun out
of her purse as we were walking to the parking lot--there was no danger to
anybody--saying, `When I heard what he had to say, I just should have'--and,
you know, she imitated shooting the gun.
GROSS: Hm. And that's when she was wrestled to the ground?
Mr. OLSEN: Yeah.
GROSS: OK. But she really didn't plan on shooting him, she was just making a
Mr. OLSEN: No, my mother is no Squeaky Fromme.
GROSS: Right. OK. So your mother's pretty eccentric, I'm getting the
Mr. OLSEN: Well, but more than just eccentric and hopefully, you know, the
character Lois, who receives a lot of Mom's characteristics is also,
hopefully, more than just eccentric. She's a very smart woman, incredibly
well-educated woman with a big spirit for life and a big love of family that
wedded into a very patriarchal relationship, and those are the deeper currents
of what I see in my mother, is her struggle to remain an individual and to
grow as an individual with the subservience, really, that was demanded by my
GROSS: You know, you're mentioning the character of Lois, I should explain
for our listeners who don't know who Lois is, she is the mother of the Bill
Paxton character. She's the mother of the main polygamist on the show and she
lives in the compound. She lives in the polygamist compound that her son
broke away from and she's very unpredictable, unreliable, kind of crazy and
kind of dangerous.
Mr. SCHEFFER: She is. She's a feisty character played by Grace Zabriskie
with great flair, and she's a real eccentric, original kind of character.
GROSS: Tom Hanks is one of the producers of "Big Love," and the production
company is Playtone, his company. How did he get involved with it?
Mr. OLSEN: We developed the idea and we sold it to HBO, and then we were
looking for a good partner, a good producing partner who could watch our
backsides, and that was Tom Hanks. That's who we wanted to go to, so we went
to Playtone and pitched it to Tom and his partner, having no idea how they
would receive this idea, none whatsoever. And they got it, you know. Tom
instantly, out of the gate, got what it was about, got what we were trying to
do, and got behind it 100 percent.
GROSS: What was your pitch?
Mr. SCHEFFER: We actually had worked up, you know, with the research and
with everything, we had worked up a fairly comprehensive pilot pitch that
pitched, you know, I mean, specifically, the stories of all these characters.
But I think that that kind of focus was marriage times three, marriage times
three. This is a show about marriage to the Nth degree, you know. And that
thing that we were talking about, you know, in terms of the pace of modern
life and how people manage to stay married with one partner these days is
GROSS: Well, Mark Olsen, Will Scheffer, thank you both so much for talking
Mr. SCHEFFER: Thank you, Terry.
Mr. OLSEN: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer co-created the HBO series "Big Love,"
which is now in its second season.
Coming up, global warming and intensifying hurricanes. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Kerry Emanuel, professor of meterology at MIT, on
global warming and intensifying hurricanes
TERRY GROSS, host:
Everyone is wondering whether this year will be a year of intense hurricanes.
My guest can't answer that question, but he has a lot to say about hurricanes
and climate change. Kerry Emanuel is a professor of meteorology at MIT and
author of "Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes." Chris Mooney,
in his new book "Storm World," called Emanuel "perhaps the world's leading
hurricane theorist, the scientist who had single-handedly generated the
concept of hurricane intensification due to global warming as a theoretical
Kerry Emanuel, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Your theory is that global warming is affecting hurricanes and that
hurricanes, these particularly ferocious hurricanes, are affecting climate.
Let's start with how global warming changes the force of hurricanes. Would
you explain the principle behind that?
Professor KERRY EMANUEL: Well, sure. A hurricane is an example of a heat
engine, which is a large class of engines that convert one kind of energy to
another. They convert heat energy into mechanical or kinetic energy. In the
case of a hurricane, it's converting heat energy into the energy of the winds.
The heat is extracted from the ocean by the evaporation of water, which has a
property that it cools the water off and adds the heat to the air. We
understand the workings of that engine when it's working perfectly,
efficiently pretty well, and that understanding allows us to say something
about how the intensity of hurricanes ought to change as the climate changes.
So that's the theoretical foundation behind these ideas.
There's also a whole set of observations which have come to light over the
last few years which suggests that we are already beginning to see, in certain
parts of the world, a real response of hurricanes to actual global warming.
Prof. EMANUEL: Well, most particularly in the Atlantic, and, as it happens,
the Atlantic, although it only contains about 12 percent of all the tropical
cyclones in the world, is far and away the best observed place. We routinely
fly reconnaissance aircraft into hurricanes, which we do nowhere else in the
world. And so we start with very good records, at least over the last 30 or
35 years or so. And during that time, certainly, we've seen a big increase in
the amount of energy expended by hurricanes. We have certain measures that
essentially measure how much energy hurricanes produce over their lifetimes,
and that metric has been increasing quite rapidly since about 1970; and,
perhaps more strikingly, it's variability, whether it's going up or down, is
highly correlated with changes in the tropical ocean temperature of the
GROSS: What have you added to the theory of how global warming affects
hurricanes? And we'll save for a little bit later the part about how
hurricanes affects climate change. Let's start with what you've added to the
theory of how global warming affects the ferocity of hurricanes.
Prof. EMANUEL: Well, starting about 20 years ago I developed a quantitative
theory for how much energy a hurricane can produce in a given climate, and it
was straightforward to then go and say, well, if the climate changes, how will
that energy change? Now, there's some interesting twists and turns to this.
The original work we did simply came up with a maximum wind speed you could
have in a hurricane in a given climate, that is, given this ocean temperature
and this state of the atmosphere, what's the maximum surface wind speed you
could have? And we call that the potential intensity. And we started to
quantify that about 20 years ago so that if you tell me the climate of the
earth, I can give you a map which shows how this potential intensity varies
with space and in time from winter to summer and so on.
Now, what we observed, when we compared this potential energy to the records
of many, many actual hurricanes, was that, indeed, hurricanes almost never
exceed this potential intensity. It really is a speed limit for them, but
only a very few of them ever get anywhere near this intensity. Most of them
fall quite short. On the other hand, if you look at large subsets of the
data, like all the data in the Atlantic Ocean or all the data in the Pacific
Ocean, you find that the average intensity of hurricanes changes the same way
as its potential intensity does, so that if I increase the potential intensity
10 percent, then on average, the wind speeds of a whole set of hurricanes will
go up by 10 percent. So that turned out to be a very useful fact, if you
will, that made nature very much in accord with the theory. That's where we
GROSS: Well, we've talked a little bit about how climate changes affects
hurricanes, and your theory is that ferocious hurricanes affect the climate
and can cool the tropics. Would you explain your theory?
Prof. EMANUEL: Sure. The action of the hurricanes works through the ocean
in this case. Hurricanes violently mix the upper few hundred feet of the
ocean. They bring cold water up to the surface and they pump warm water down,
and this has an indirect, or knock-on, affect of driving in the ocean a flow
of heat away from the tropics and toward the higher latitudes. So the net
effect of hurricanes is to cool the tropics, but, paradoxically, to warm the
middle and high latitudes. And that's how we think hurricanes principally
affect the climate system. They moderate any change that you try to make in
the tropics but they accentuate changes in higher latitudes.
GROSS: So are we looking at like a vicious cycle where global warming creates
more hurricanes, more hurricanes create more climate change, which creates
more hurricanes, which--is it one of those?
Prof. EMANUEL: We're not sure about that. We have some very simple models
that suggest that that might be true. Because the effect of hurricanes is to
reduce the temperature difference between high and low latitudes. That
itself, that reduction, is conducive to more hurricanes. And so you can sort
of flip into a different climate state, although that, again, is a theory
that's fairly recent and hasn't been very well tested.
GROSS: If your theory is correct that global warming not only creates
hurricanes but those intensified hurricanes create climate change and can cool
the tropics, is this something that you would expect to happen way down in the
distant future, or something that you think could be a significant change in
the more immediate future?
Prof. EMANUEL: It's hard to say. We didn't really expect to see
significant changes in hurricane activity for another 50 years, but arguably
we're already seeing that, and that humbles us. We've seen a response that we
don't entirely understand. What is of concern--to some of us, at any rate--is
the notion that the climate system can change very quickly. Certainly if you
look at paleoclimate evidence from--such as ice cores, deep-sea evidence and
so on, you see evidence that, in the past, the climate has switched very
rapidly. So we're worried about this. We don't entirely understand it, but
it's the surprises that one worries about in practice.
GROSS: There are some scientists who are saying what we're seeing now in
hurricanes is really just--you know, these are climate changes that are part
of natural cycles. And, you know, some scientists really don't buy your
theory that hurricanes are going to affect--you know, that these new intense
hurricanes are going to affect climate change. So what do you say to the
skeptics who say that what we're seeing now, it's just, you know, regular
patterns of climate and weather change?
Prof. EMANUEL: Well, it's hard to really judge that except in places where
we have very good records of hurricanes, such as the Atlantic, and the natural
cycle idea grew out of the recognition that the records show that there was a
prominent peak of Atlantic hurricane activity in the 1940s and '50s and early
'60s. That went into a decline, and there was a lull in activity in the '70s
and '80s. And then activity has been increasing very rapidly since the
mid-1990s, and if you look at the 100-year record, you see this pattern of up
and down. And a lot of scientists became persuaded by the up-down pattern
that there's something cyclic about hurricane activity.
Now, I should point out at this point, because it's important, that that
pattern of up and down that I was just referring to matches almost perfectly
the pattern of ocean temperature in the tropical Atlantic during hurricane
season. It did the same thing. But people who study climate understand
pretty well why the Atlantic sea surface temperatures did that, and there's
nothing cyclic about it. It went up in the '30s, '40s, and '50s because of a
combination of a little bit of global warming, a little bit of increasing
solar activity, and the fact that, by a statistical fluke, we did not have
major volcanic eruptions during that period anywhere in the world; that tends
to cool off the climate. That's well known. The cooling that took place from
the '50s to the '80s is thought by many, if not most, climate scientists, to
be a consequence of another kind of air pollution that we create, which
results in fine particles called sulfate aerosols, which reflect sunlight.
But since the '90s, certainly, the climate of the northern hemisphere has been
dominated by increasing greenhouse gases.
And so scientists, I'm afraid to say--and I was among those who fell for
it--looked at a very short records that had two peaks and one trough in it and
said, `Oh, it's a cycle.' Well, I think the evidence is now fairly strong that
there isn't anything cyclic about it. The fact that it goes up and down
doesn't mean it's cyclic. So I think this idea of natural cycles is very,
very shaky at this point, and the evidence points to a number of influences on
Atlantic Ocean temperature hurricanes, not just man-made ones but things like
volcanic eruptions and changes in solar activity, dust contents from dust
lifted off the Sahara Desert seem to have an effect as well. There are a
number of effects, but not very many of them, if any of them, are really
GROSS: My guest is meteorologist and hurricane expert, Kerry Emanuel. He's
a professor at MIT. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is MIT Professor Kerry Emanuel. He's a hurricane expert who
has proposed that not only does global warming produce more intense
hurricanes, these intense hurricanes can create climate change.
You know, global warming is such a politically charged subject now so that,
you know, your theory has been, you know, loudly criticized by some
scientists, and I'm wondering like if a scientist like you is prepared for
that kind of more public debate.
Prof. EMANUEL: I don't think in general we are. Certainly it's not part of
most of our educations to deal with the media, and it's also very hard for
what is internally, within science, a scientific debate to be portrayed--it's
hard to see it portrayed as a personal debate or a political debate. That
really, that's upsetting to most of us because we don't really feel that way.
So if I disagree with scientist B about something, that's part of it. That's
part of science. We're used to that. That happens all the time. It's not
personal, and in fact, it's what makes science fun. You know, we argue about
ideas and we argue about data, and that's what we like doing, and I don't know
how to put it any differently. But it doesn't usually get personal, but it's
often portrayed that way, so that you open up the newspaper and you sort of
think that, `Gosh, scientist B hates me, and I'm being made to look like I
hate that scientist,' and it's just not true. And that can be a bit
GROSS: In addition to studying hurricanes on a theoretical level, you've
studied them on a more physical level. I mean, you at least once flew into a
hurricane. Could you describe what you saw? Like, what was the hurricane you
flew into and what did you see when you did it?
Prof. EMANUEL: Well, I've flown into a number of hurricanes--Hurricane
Gloria back in 1985 and a few hurricanes no one's ever heard of in the eastern
Pacific Ocean in the early '90s and, most recently, into Hurricane Fabian in
2003 in the Atlantic. And none of the hurricanes I flew into had particularly
well-developed eyes. Fabian had a pretty nice eye.
I think it's a wonderful experience. I actually think everybody should have
that experience because flying in through the rain and the eyewall and so on,
you don't see very much. There's just a lot of rain and cloud. You wouldn't
really notice anything very different from flying in ordinary bad weather.
But when you break out into the eye, it's something that you can't describe
even with a good photograph. It's like being in a giant coliseum that's 10
miles high, it's blindingly white, and you feel very insignificant in there.
I sort of toy with the notion that, when I retire, I'm going to start some
kind of hurricane safari operation to take people into eyes to see them.
GROSS: I've read that you're interested in some degree of weather
modification, of seeing whether there's a way of limiting the force of
hurricanes or changing their direction to make them go into less-inhabited
areas. Can you talk a little bit about what you think weather modification
might be able to do someday?
Prof. EMANUEL: Well, that's right. It's an interesting topic that's been
kicked around for a very long time, although the ideas for pulling it off, of
course, evolve. For a while various people, including me, thought that you
might be able to attack the Achilles heel of the hurricane, which is the
molecular interface between the ocean and the atmosphere through which water
has to evaporate, to drive the storm, and it's well known that at low wind
speeds, certain kinds of polymers or oils will greatly inhibit the
evaporation. And we actually built a little experimental apparatus here at
MIT to create the conditions that you would see in hurricanes with winds
moving--or air moving very rapidly over water, measuring the evaporation rate
and seeing whether we could affect it with these polymers. And at low wind
speeds we were very successful, but at high wind speeds, there was no effect,
which is understandable, because whatever you try to do just gets torn up
But there are other ideas coming from other places--not my own ideas--which I
think are very intriguing, and one of this is, you know that we know the
atmosphere is an example of a chaotic system, and a central property of a
chaotic system is it's very, very susceptible to small perturbations. You've
heard of the so-called butterfly effect, where a butterfly flapping his wings
in Argentina might lead to a tornado in Texas three weeks later.
But then there's the notion of basically, can you tame this butterfly. Can
you introduce a small perturbation somewhere at some time that would have a
desirable outcome, if not three weeks later, let's say three days later, and
the answer is, in principle, yes, you can. And we even have the know-how top
know what sort of perturbation to put where and when to, let's say, have the
effect of a hurricane instead of hitting Miami in three days, being steered
harmlessly out to sea, and doing things that don't involve putting lots of
energy or substance in the atmosphere at all but just doing something very
naturally that would happen naturally anyway, but at a particular time and
place. And that's an intriguing idea and I can't help but feel that will come
to fruition sometime.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. EMANUEL: Oh, you're quite welcome. I enjoyed it.
GROSS: Kerry Emanuel is a professor of meteorology at MIT and author of
"Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes."
If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, you can download
podcasts of our show by going to our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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