Category Archives: Climate and weather

Arctic Emergency: Scientists Speak

Lots to talk about here:

Published on Aug 1, 2014
Arctic Emergency: Scientists Speak On Melting Ice and Global Impacts (1080p HD)

This film brings you the voices of climate scientists – in their own words.

Rising temperatures in the Arctic are contributing the melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and destabilization of a system that has been called “Earth’s Air Conditioner”.

Global warming is here and is impacting weather patterns, natural systems, and human life around the world – and the Arctic is central to these impacts.
Scientists featured in the film include:

– Jennifer Francis, PhD. Atmospheric Sciences
Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University.

– Ron Prinn, PhD. Chemistry
TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

– Natalia Shakhova, PhD. Marine Geology
International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

– Kevin Schaefer, PhD.
Research Scientist, National Snow and Ice Data Center.

– Stephen J. Vavrus, PhD. Atmospheric Sciences
Center for Climatic Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison

– Nikita Zimov, Northeast Science Station, Russian Academy of Sciences.

– Jorien Vonk, PhD. Applied Environmental Sciences
Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University

– Jeff Masters, PhD. Meteorology
Director, Weather Underground

First 2014 Atlantic Tropical Storm??? IMPORTANT UPDATE

Maybe yes, maybe no. Good chance, yes.

It is too early to call, but the blob I mentioned the other day has turned into a spiral and is starting to get organized. Forecasters at NOAA think there is an 80% chance this low pressure phenomenon will be a tropical storm by the 4th of July. They are also, somewhat vaguely, saying that it will move south, then northward, then northwest, which puts the storm off the coast of the US Mid-Atlantic or Southeast somewhere. Given that the storm is not moving in a consistent direction steered by well defined one directional forces, this should be very hard to predict this early.

This afternoon there should be an aircraft taking a closer look, assuming development continues. By tomorrow mid day, I suspect, we’ll know a lot more, between the collection of new data, the runs of more models, and the behavior of the proto-storm itself.

But yes, this could be Atlantic Storm 1, Arthur, a menacing off coast storm but almost certainly NOT a hurricane, as it will be moved too far north to really turn into one.

UPDATE: The NWS is now more certain about the disturbance turning into a Tropical Storm:

1. Shower and thunderstorm activity has increased in association with
a low pressure area located about 125 miles east of Melbourne,
Florida. Environmental conditions are becoming more conducive for
, and only a slight increase in organization would result
in the formation of a tropical depression
. This system is moving
southwestward at around and 5 mph but is expected to turn westward
tonight and northward by Wednesday near the east Florida coast. A
turn toward the northeast near the southeastern U.S. coast is
expected by Thursday. An Air Force Reserve reconnaissance aircraft
is en route to investigate the disturbance. If this system becomes
a tropical cyclone, a tropical storm watch could be required for
portions of the central or northern Atlantic coast of Florida.

* Formation chance through 48 hours…high…80 percent.
* Formation chance through 5 days…high…80 percent.

UPDATE 2 (Monday evening): Check out Paul Douglas’s blog at Star Tribune for details. It is still too early to have high confidence, but there is a good enough chance that there will be a named storm menacing the US Southeast/Mid Atlantic coast on or around the 4th that if you live in that area you might consider the waterproof bratwurst for your picnic.

For reference, here is the list of storm names for the 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season:


US Drought Over Time

I made a movie you might enjoy. There may be something else out there like this, probably better than this one, but it is still cool. I downloaded all the PDF files from the US Drought Monitor archives, using the version of the connected US that has only the year, month, and day on the graphic. Then I slapped them in iMovie and sped the animation up by 800% over the default 1 sec. per pic. I do not have today’s rather horrifying image on it, which I’ve placed above.

Here’s the movie:

Meteorologist Paul Douglas on Atheist Talk This Sunday

This Sunday morning, on Atheist Talk radio, I’ll interview Paul Douglas, America’s favorite meteorologists (at least when the weather is good).

When I first moved to Minnesota, which happened to be during a period of intense Spring and Summer storminess for a few years in a row (including this event which wiped out Amanda’s dorm long before I ever met her), I spent a bit of time while searching for a place to live watching the local news, to get a feel for the place. Coming from the Boston area, where the main local news stations aggressively compete with each other using their meteorologists, I found it interesting that there was a huge range of variation in the weather reporting in the Twin Cities. One weather team stood out above the others, led by Paul Douglas, who at the time was on WCCO (CBS). That station quickly became my go-to place for news and weather because of the quality of Paul’s weather reporting.

At the time, climate change was on the minds of relatively few people, but it was very much an interest of mine because of my research in palaeoclimate connected to my work on the New England coast and in Central Africa. Also, soon after moving here I was added to the faculty of the Lakes Research Center, a globally recognized paleoclimate facility that focuses on fresh water proxyindicators (mud in ponds and lakes). So, it was rather annoying to see at least one of the Twin Cities meteorologists implying now and then that global warming was some sort of hoax, and in contrast, refreshing to see Paul Douglas speaking of the weather in scientific but understandable terms, and taking note of, and not dismissing, the extreme weather we were having at the time.

Paul got into the broadcast business while still in high school, where he worked for WHEX-AM in Pennsylvania. Later he was to develop a series of weather related and other businesses, earning the appellation “entrepreneur extraordinaire.” He has degrees and certifications in meteorology, worked at KARE-TV in theTwin Cities, WBBM-TV in Chicago, and as mentioned, became chief meteorologist for WCCO-TV. He left that position a few years ago, and weather reporting in the area has not been the same since.

Have you seen the movies Jurassic Park and Twister? Paul’s company Earth/Watch Communications produced the weather visualizations for those films, and Paul appears in a cameo in Twister.

Paul is the author of Prairie Skies and Restless Skies.

If you live in the Twin Cities you know that Paul writes a daily weather blog at the Star Tribune, and this blog is mirrored with a more national version at Weather Nation, which is the company Paul is currently most involved in. Those blogs are unique. A typical post includes a detailed narrative of current weather conditions and weather over the next few days, allowing the reader to get the sense of an expert meteorologist thinking out loud, going through several models, evaluating them, balancing the conflicting data, throwing in a bit of gut feeling, to produce a typically accurate (insofar as it is possible to be accurate) scenario for upcoming weather. Following this, a typical post by Paul Douglas will include a summary of the latest research and findings on global warming, often linking climate change to current weather observations.

Over the last few years, it has become apparent that a phenomenon known as Weather Whiplash, likely a result of climate change, has become the predominant driver of significant weather events. Paul is one of the people who first notice this phenomenon, and his advocacy of the science of climate change and responsible meteorology had certainly helped drive research in this direction.

Readers of this blog and listeners of Atheist Talk will also be interested to know that Paul is a Reasonable Republican (a rare breed) as well as an Evangelical Christian. He has written and spoken about the need for conservatives to embrace climate change, because it is real, and to address it with the assumption that it costs more to ignore it than to tackle it. He is also involved with faith-based activities advocating for applying good science to developing good policy regarding climate change.

I’ll ask Paul about the weather (perhaps he will give us an exclusive forecast!), weather whiplash, his approaches to communicating about climate change, why he got into weather to begin with (I believe there is an interesting story there) and more. See you Sunday Morning!

HERE is how to listen live, which can only be done from Minnesota, so you’d need to have a zip code such as 55344 or something. In case you are asked.

The show will later be posted as a podcast here.

If you have a question you’d like to ask, email it in during or before the show or call during the show at (952) 946-6205.

The Christ Child Cometh.

… and by that I mean the El Niño phase of the El Niño Souther Oscillation climate pattern.

We have been in an ENSO neutral phase for a while. Climate scientists have a hard time predicting El Niño, which arrives in Summer, Fall, or Winter, this early in the year, but nonetheless most prediction sources, and most models, now tell us that we are likely to have one staring, really, any time, but most likely Summer or Fall. Here’s a graph of several models. The bottom colored area is Le Niña, who we assume was Jesus Christ’s sister, and the top colored area is El Ninño, with the middle part being neutral. What is being measured here is sea surface temperature anomaly in certain areas of the Pacific Ocean.


The ENSO is complex and I won’t try to explain it all here, but the bottom line is this: During some periods heat accumulated on the surface of the Pacific is moved by currents (driven by winds) deeper into the ocean. During other periods, El Niño, the heat moves back to the surface again.

It is interesting to note that there are probably two kinds of El Niño: Regular and “Modoki”. Modoki is Japanese for “Similar but different.” So perhaps we can think of Modoki El Niño as Brian. Anyway, the Modoki El Niño is different in a few ways, one of those being that while regular El Niño tends to attenuate Atlantic hurricane activity by causing more tropical storm-killing vertical wind shear, the Modoki variety may enhance the likelihood of landfalling hurricanes in the US. I’ve not seen any predictions that we are more likely to have Modoki El Niño this year, but a paper just coming out on a related topic, that I’m busy writing up suggests that it may be the case.

For more information on this year’s predictions, see these sources:


El Niño likely to develop in winter (Australian Bureau of Meteorology)

Atlantic Hurricane Season Prediction

The last hurricane season in the Atlantic was anemic, being one of least active periods on record. This was attributed to extra dust blown off the Sahara which inhibits hurricane development.

Right now, the various forecasting agencies around the world are agreeing that there is a greater than 50% chance, perhaps a 70% chance of an El Nino event happening this year, starting in the Summer or Fall. Traditionally, we think of El Nino events as inhibiting tropical storm and hurricane formation in the Atlantic. Today, a group that predicts hurricane activity in the Atlantic every year has used the likely El Nino event to predict that this year’s season will be relatively low level.

According to this prediction, there will be nine named storms in the Atlantic, three of which will become hurricanes, one of those a major hurricane (Category 3 or above), with a 35% chance of a major hurricane hitting the US coast somewhere.

Personally, I’m not sure about the effects of El Nino, should it occur. There haven’t been that many El Ninos during the period for which there are high quality records. This year’s El Nino, if it materializes, will occur during a period when we are experiencing strange and different things in the Arctic. Many of the teleconnections between El Nino and other conditions elsewhere in the world are highly variable and many are not all that well understood. Overall, with global warming, conditions may simply be different enough this year from any other prior year that predictions may be off. While it makes sense that if there is an El Nino we should expect an attenuated Atlantic hurricane season, I’m not going to be surprised if several of the usual links between El Nino and various weather conditions are different than “usual.”

I visit tropics, tropics visit me.

I grew up (and beyond) in the US northeast. There, the weather was pretty good at coming at us from the West, though a nor’easter blowing in from the North East (unsurprisingly) was not uncommon in New England. Although I had studied sea level rise and some Pleistocene climate reconstruction, when I first went to the field in Central Africa I was pretty unschooled in areas of climate and weather. I remember the first several days in the Ituri Forest. I though I knew which way was North, South, East, etc. but then I would get turned around because the big storms — that came in every single day in the afternoon — were confusing me. It turns out that on the equator (which I was, almost, 3 degrees north of it) the “trade winds” come in from the east, not the west. So now you know.

I recently spent a few days on the Yucatan and some of that was spent watching clouds. For the first few day, the clouds came from the west and headed east though the surface winds never stopped being from the east-southeast (the direction of the sea). After two days of this, a nice big set of storm clouds formed, not supercells but big cloud formations. One of the clouds dropped a couple of wall clouds, and then a handful of twisters, the non-supercell type that sometimes become water spouts. They existed as thin threads hanging from the clouds for just a few minutes, then disappeared. By the next day, cumulus clouds were coming from the East, not the West, and did so thereafter.

I checked satellite images each day, and I believe this is what was happening: At first I was within the zone where the trade winds blow mostly from West to East, but the line between the meteorological tropics and the sub-tropics shifted past my location at about 20 degrees N. Latitude, so I ended up in the tropics. I’m not going to claim it got warmer, but it might have. I did switch from Beer to Tequila at about that time, so there’s that.

Idealized Trade Winds
Idealized Trade Winds

The Hope Graph

There’s a thing I’ve been doing every Spring for a few years no, privately. This year I decided to tell you all about it because I think you might find it useful. I call it the “Hope Graph.”

I moved to Minnesota from a slightly warmer climate. The winters here are long, and they are made longer by the local culture. For example, in Minnesota August is a relatively cool month. One gets the impression Fall is coming during the month of August, and the occasional tree or bush that has something wrong with it so it turns red early does not help. (Personally I think we should find and kill all such plants.) Correspondingly, Minnesotans will start to pack up their summer stuff in August as though winter was only a few days away.

Out east, where I’m from, this was a perennial question: “Will we have a white Christmas?” Weather forecasters were required to tell us, starting in early December, whether or not this would happen. People worried about it. Here in Minnesota, that is rarely a question.

Both Fall and Spring here are quick, only a few weeks long. Out east, the crocus push up first, then the daffodils, then the tulips, and it takes up to six weeks. Here in Minnesota they all come up the same day and are then instantly eaten by starving marmots.

The cultural hastening of Winter, the meteorological fact that Winter comes early and leaves late like those unwanted cousins from out of town, and the quickness of the intervening seasons all make Winter loooooooong. Painfully long.

Every now and then, during the Summer, I’ll experience a sudden chill. Not because it is cold, but because it occurs to me that Summer is short, and Winter is Long so no matter what the date is, if it is Summer, the end is near and if it is Winter, the end is not. When that occurs to you in July it feels chilly.

So, here’s what I do. About this time of year, some time in early or mid February, I make a graph. Using climatological data, I make a graph (I’ve done this with a table as well) showing what day we can expect, on average, for the daily high temperature to reach freezing. In theory, five or six days of the daily high reaching about freezing is enough to start the cascade of events that clears the roads and walkways of icy and hard-packed snow. Even when it is a bit below freezing, a patch of open pavement will collect sunlight (when it is sunny) and, combined with the chemical treatment left over from winter, the bare patch starts to grow and grow. A few days in a row of high temperatures reaching about freezing makes the Winter landscape start to look different. Hopefully different.

So I figure out when that date is and the nice thing about it is that that date is always pleasantly sooner than one might expect. At present I calculate that date to be about February 23rd. That’s just around the corner! If this is a perfectly average year, between about February 23rd and, say, February 28th, the pavements should mostly clear, except in shady areas, of hard packed snow and ice.

Then I figure out when the date is that the average low temperature will be about freezing. A few days of the low temperature being at or above freezing signals one of the most important unofficial holidays of the year: Point Out Dog Doo Day! This is of course the traditional day when the snow banks start to melt enough that the dog doo deposited throughout the winter begins to emerge, and we can walk around in a light jacket on the melted-off sidewalks pointing it out to each other.

This of course is no longer what happens with leash laws and poop-scooping city regulations, but it is still a great tradition.

By my calculations, Point Out Dog Doo Day should be around April 3rd or a bit after … if temperatures this year are perfectly average.

It is a bit depressing that the time span between Pavement Melt Off and Point Out Dog Doo Day is well over a month. But this is the Month of Hope. Hope that our year will be average. Or above average.

The following graph is the Hope Graph for the Twin Cities, Minnesota (click on the graph to embiggen):

The Hope Graph
The Hope Graph

This is generated using data from here. For your local area, you can find your own data. The experience of doing so will be good for you.

Of course, this all assumes average temperatures. We are currently under the spell of the Arctic Vortex, so nothing is average right now. On the other hand, the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing one of the warmest winters ever. This might mean that if the Arctic Vortex moves off the upper Midwest, we’ll experience an accelerated Spring.

Or, so, we can hope.

Rush Limbaugh and the Liberal Polar Vortex

Here’s the thing: Shauna Theel has a video on the Polar Vortex vs. Rush Limbaugh:

Published on Jan 9, 2014

Media Matters Climate & Energy Program Director Shauna Theel debunks Rush Limbaugh’s conspiracy that the “polar vortex” was created by the media to lie to you about climate change.

Peter Gleick previously posted this Google Ngram on the term “Polar Vortex” and al Roker tweeted about it as well:

Here’s a bigger copy of Peter’s ngram:


Have Dragons, Orcs and Wizards caused climate change?

A new study has been published demonstrating, among other things, that the climate of Middle Earth has strong analogies in certain areas of Modern Earth. In particular, climate modeling indicates that The Shire is most similar to either Lincolnshire or Leicestershire in the UK or the vicinity of Dunedin in New Zealand. Mordor is most analogous to Los Angeles and western Texas or Alice Springs in Australia.

Radagast the Brown
Radagast the Brown
But I think the most interesting conclusion of this research is about forest cover in Middle Earth. Based on advanced climate modeling, the paper’s author, Radagast the Brown (Rhosgobel, nr. Carrock, Mirkwood, Middle Earth) claims that the entire region would be covered in forests “had [they] not been altered by dragons, orcs, wizards etc.”

But this research is not without controversy. Climate science skeptic Ufthak, Orc of the Tower of Cirith Ungol, claims that this research is “… nothing more than the stinking drivel of some self aggrandizing wizard, like the rest of ’em, he thinks he can be so smart but I’ll show him smart when I get my hand on his spindly neck, arrrg. They thought I was dead but I’ll show them who be dead, yes I will.”

Ufthak claims to be writing a blog post critiquing Radagast’s model. “It’s a model, he says. I’ll show him a model. I’ll model my hands around his spindly neck, I will. Arrrg.”

Within the more mainstream scientific community, however, there is general acceptance of Radagast’s findings, though not perfect agreement. “This form of modeling is powerful, but nothing in this world is perfect,” Gandalf the Grey told me in a Skype interview. “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” On further questioning about what that even means, Gandalf became circumspect and I could get nothing more out of him.

Smaug could not be reached for comment, but an emissary of the Elves is quoted as saying of the climate controversy, “It is not our fight.”

This paper is part of a growing body of writing on the Science of Middle Earth, including recent work on the geology of the Lonely Mountain.