My friend Paul Douglas calls himself an albino unicorn. He is a Republican (one of my few Republican friends!) and an evangelical Christian (one of my few evangelical Christian friends!) who is extremely well informed about climate change, and who acts on a day to day basis as a climate warrior, informing people of the realities of climate change at several levels.
I tend to think of Paul as a tire, because he is where the rubber meets the road. His job is informing corporations and such about the risks they are facing right now, today, tomorrow, next week with respect to weather. Paul has been doing some sort of meteorology or another for quite a while now, having been a TV presenter meteorologist in Chicago and the Twin Cities, having consulted in Hollywood (Jurassic Park and Twister), and having run various metrology companies like the one he runs now. He also gives talks around the Twin Cities and elsewhere about climate change, writes a regular column for the Star Tribune, and has consulted for or testified for various government agencies on long term climate change risks.
Paul and I have somewhat similar histories. Born only a few weeks apart, raised in the non-urban part of a semi-industrialized semi-rural eastern state (New York for me, Pennsylvania for him), and having had formative weather experiences early in life. In Paul’s case, it was a major hurricane that eventually lumbered into the mountainous areas of Central Pennsylvania, causing killer floods and other mayhem. Paul, a teenager at the time, and a scout, developed an early warning system for river floods, and probably earning one hella merit badge.
Paul is an excellent explainer of climate and weather, as you can learn from this interview. And, he does not restrict his communication efforts to places like churches or whatever venues are frequented by Evangelical Christians such as lutefisk breakfasts, snake handling session, etc. In fact, the aforementioned interview is on Atheist Talk Radio.
The book’s structure swaps back and forth between science (the parts written by Paul Douglas) and scripture (the parts written by co-author Mitch Hescox). I don’t know Mitch, but from the blurb I learn: “Mitch Hescox leads the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), the largest evangelical group dedicated to creation care (www.creationcare.org). He has testified before Congress, spoken at the White House, and is quoted frequently in national press. Prior to EEN, he pastored a church for 18 years and worked in the coal industry. Mitch and his wife live in Pennsylvania.”
Now, you might think that the chances of an Evangelical Christian reading my blog is about zero. This is not true. Many Christians, ranging from Evangelical to less-than-angelical read this blog, they just don’t say much in the comments section. Except those who do, mainly those denying the science of climate change. Well, this book is for all of you, especially the Evangelical deniers, because here, the case is made on your terms and in your language, in a very convincing way, and, including the science. It turns out that, according to the Bible, you are wrong on the Internet.
Let’s say that you are a fairly active atheist who likes to annoy your Christian relatives at holidays. If that is the case, then this book is for you!! This is the book to give to your Uncle Bob.
I can’t attest to the scriptural parts of this book. This is not because I’m unfamiliar with Scripture or have nothing to say about it. Both assumptions would be highly erroneous. But, in fact, I did not explore those parts of this book in much detail, just a little. But I am very familiar with the science in this book, I’ve delved deeply into it, and I can tell you that Paul has it right, and it is very current.
From the publisher:
Forget the confusing doom and gloom talk about climate change. You want to know the truth about what’s happening, how it could affect your family and the world, and more important, if there are realistic ways to do something about it–even better, solutions that reflect your beliefs.
Connecting the dots between science and faith, pastor and influential evangelical leader Mitch Hescox and veteran meteorologist Paul Douglas show how Christians can take the lead in caring for God’s creation. Tackling both personal and global issues, these trusted authors share ways to protect our families, as well as which action steps will help us wisely steward the resources God has given us.
This hopeful book offers a much-needed conservative, evangelical approach to a better way forward–one that improves our health, cleans up our communities, and leaves our kids a better world.
What I find exceptional about Paul Douglas’s conversation about weather, aside from the fact that he well commands an audience of those who might otherwise be naysayers, is that he brings decades of direct observation of actual climate change into the discussion. He has been a) reporting the weather during the periods of maximal change so far, b) while paying close attention and c) never had his mind shut down to ignore climate change, as has happened in the past to so many meteorologists.
The book is loaded with helpful greyscale graphics, and notes/references. Paul is at @pdouglasweather
Trending wetter with time: weather never moves in a straight line, but data from NOAA NCDC shows a steady increase in the percentage of the USA experiencing extreme 1-day rainfall amounts since the first half of the 20th century. Photograph: NOAA NCDC
My Apology to Paul Douglas
I admit that I do a lot of Republican bashing. I’m a Democrat, and more than that, I’m a partisan. I understand that a political party is a tool for grass roots influence on policy, if you care to use it. The Democratic party platform, at the state and national level, reflects my policy-related values reasonably well, and the Republican approach is largely defined as supporting the opposite of whatever the Democrats say, even when Democrats come up with a policy that is closely based on a previously developed Republican policy. So, my hope is to see the Democratic caucus in the majority, in both houses of my state legislature, and both houses of the US Congress. And a Democratic President. This is the only way that the policies I see as appropriate and important are advanced, and the anti-policies put forth by the reactionary party, the Republicans, are not.
So, with respect to elected officials, I will always oppose Republicans and always support Democrats. That includes opposing “Reasonable Republicans” (an endangered species) and, not happily, supporting Red Dog Democrats. This is necessary because of the necessity of a majority caucus in each legislative branch. (You probably know this, but the majority party gets to call the shots, run committees, etc.) At some future date, when Democratic majorities are not as tenuous, I may change that approach, but not now.
If key policy orientations for key issues tended to find cross-party support, I would not be so much of a partisan. But that is not what happens these days in government. My partisanship is not a choice, but a necessity required by Republican reactionary philosophy among elected officials.
So, that is my explanation — not excuse, but explanation — for my Republican bashing, a behavior that is one side of a coin. The obverse is, obviously, Democratic cheerleading.
And, with that as background, I sincerely apologize to my friend Paul Douglas.
Minnesota Nice Weather
Paul is one of the country’s top meteorologists.
When I was about to move to Minnesota, I flew out to find an apartment for my family, and get the feel of the landscape. I stayed in a hotel in the near western suburbs, and spent each day looking at apartments, and checking out driving times between various neighborhoods and the University of Minnesota. Every evening I pick up the local papers to peruse them while watching the local news, because that is a good way to get to know a place.
One day I was out driving around, lost, somewhere near downtown on this mess of highway that made no sense to me. The sky had been filled since early morning with enormous thunderheads, the kind I had seen previously in the Congo, but rare in Boston, where I was living at the time. Suddenly, a huge thunderstorm passed overhead, with hail, and the road filled with water, forcing me to pull off for a few minutes to avoid hydroplaning. After the storm had passed, I drove back out onto the highway, and witnessed an amazing sight.
First, I should note that in Minnesota, you can see the sky for great distances because it is relatively flat here. Minnesotans don’t think of Minnesota as flat, and compared to Kansas, it isn’t. But it is compared to my previous homes in Boston or upstate New York. I remember thinking that day that Minnesota counted as “Big Sky Country” in its own way. Minus the Rocky Mountains.
Anyway, the sky was being big, and the view was filled with more thunderheads. But off to the northeast was a huge horizontally elongated cloud. It was at about the same elevation as the lower parts of the nearby thunder clouds, longer in its longest dimension than a good size thunder storm, but shaped more like a giant cigar. And it was rotating, rapidly, like a log rolling down hill. (Except it wasn’t really going anywhere.)
I thought to myself, “This is amazing. I wonder if the people of Minnesota appreciate how spectacular and beautiful is their sky and weather, which they observed every day!”
Later that evening, I got back to my motel and switched on the news. The top news story that day, it turns out, happened to be the day’s thunderstorms, so the anchor handed off the mic to the meteorologist.
I had made an error in thinking that the people of Minnesota might be inured to spectacular thunder storms and giant rotating cigar shaped clouds. The weather reporter was showing news footing of the sky, including the rotating cigar shaped cloud I had witnessed. He told the viewers that the storms today were especially spectacular, and that this giant rotating cigar thing was a special, highly unusual weather event. He named it, calling it an arcus cloud, and noted that it was effectively similar to a tornado, in terms of wind speed and destructive potential, but that this sort of cloud rarely touched down anywhere.
(This sort of arcus cloud is a roll cloud, very rare in continental interiors, though somewhat more common in coastal areas.)
That year there were many thunderstorms in the Twin Cities. The following year as well. There were also a lot of tornadoes. All of the tornadoes I’ve ever seen with my own eyes (small ones only) were during that two year period, including one that passed directly overhead and eventually damaged a tree on the property of a house we had just made an offer on, subsequently moving along a bit father and menacing my daughter’s daycare.
An Albino Unicorn Observes Weather Whiplash
I’m pretty sure, if memory serves, that some time between my observation of the arcus cloud and the Saint Peter tornado, Paul Douglas moved from Chicago back to the Twin Cities, where he had perviously been reporting the weather.
Paul Douglas will tell you that during this period he, as a meteorologist covering the midwest and plains, started to notice severe weather coming on more frequently than before. When such a thing happens a few years in a row, one can write that off as a combination of long term oscillations in weather patterns and random chance. But when the fundamental nature of the weather in a region shifts and such normally rare events become typical, then one might seek other explanations. Climate change, caused by the human release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, is ultimately the explanation one is forced to land on when considering widespread, global (and Minnesotan), changes in weather patterns.
Paul describes himself as an “albino unicorn.” This is not a reference to a horn sticking out of his nose, or atypical pigmentation. Rather, he recognizes that as a Republican who fully accepts science, and in particular, the science of climate change, he is an odd beast. It is worth noting that Paul is also an Evangelical Christian. There are not many Evangelical Christian Republicans who understand and accept science. There are probably more than the average liberal or progressive Democrat thinks there are, because such rare beasts need to keep their heads down in many contexts. But Paul is the rarer subspecies of albino unicorn that simply refuses to do that. He speaks openly and often about climate change, giving talks, frequent interviews (like this one with me), and regular appearances on various news and commentary shows.
Paul currently runs this company, and writes an excellent weather blog here. His weather blog focuses on Minnesota weather, but it should be of interest to everyone in the US and beyond, because he also catalogues current extreme weather events globally, and summarizes current scientific research on climate change.
The graph at the top of this post is featured in Paul’s writeup, so go there and read the background. If you happen to know Donald Trump, suggest to him that there is an interesting write-up on climate change by an Evangelical Christian Republican, which he should read in order to get the Evangelical Christian Republican view on the topic!
In a day and age of scammers, hackers, hucksters and special interests it’s good to be skeptical. You should be skeptical about everything. Some of the biggest skeptics on the planet are scientists. In fact, science is organized skepticism. Climate and weather are flip-sides of the same coin; everything is interconnected. Climate scientists tell us the climate is warming and meteorologists are tracking the symptoms: freakish weather showing up with unsettling regularity. Even if you don’t believe the climate scientists or your local meteorologist do yourself and your kids a favor. Believe your own eyes.
Paul saw the signature of anthropogenic climate change in the weather he was analyzing and reporting on long before climate scientists began to connect the dots with their research. Many of the dots remain unconnected, but the association between observable changes in the climate system and changes in the weather is now understood well enough to say that it is real. I believe that the recent uptick in acceptance of climate science by Americans is partly a result of the impossible to ignore increase in severe weather events, especially flooding and major storms. The most severe heat waves have, so far, occurred in other countries, but we do get the news and we do know about them.
Check out Pauls’ Guardian writeup where he connects the dots for you, and makes a strong case that we need to put aside denialism of the science.
I don’t normally write about faith (I’m an atheist, I’d be bad at it), but I do often write about climate change. But my friend and colleague Paul Douglas happens to be an Evangelical Christian, Republican, and Rock Star Meteorologist. You’ve seen his work if you’ve seen the movies Jurassic Park or Twister. If you are from the Twin Cities area, you are probably still mourning his departure from WCCO TV, where he was famous for giving highly accurate weather forecasts, and acknowledging the realty of global warming.
Paul calls himself an albino unicorn, because he is a Republican and an Evangelical Christian who seriously respects, and understands, the science, and is very open about that. Paul is part of a small group of interested parties including me, John Abraham (at St. Thomas University), and meteorology expert Tenney Naumer, who stay in touch on a regular basis pointing out interesting meteorological events to each other so we can all keep up with happenings in this rapidly changing world, and passing back and forth ideas on how to communicate this information to the general public while at the same time keeping very true to the science.
Paul’s day job is to run Aeris weather, a high end very sophisticated meteorology company. This is one of a series of companies entrepreneur Douglas has created and developed into a success. He also blogs at the Star Tribune. If you live in the Twin Cities, this is where you get your short and long term weather predictions, if you are smart.
A note about that blog: Paul adds to every blog, after discussing the regional weather and the most interesting or important tropical storm or other untoward event happening elsewhere in the world, a listing of climate change related news stories, so this is a great place to keep up with what is going on in both those worlds of weather and climate change.
Paul also regularly gives talks on climate and meteorology to groups in the Twin Cities, and regularly appears on local TV and radio shows. In a way, he moonlights as a kind of therapist for many of us who live in this rugged and unforgiving climate, where for many days in the winter, there is nothing between us and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence. (A favorite expression of Paul’s.)
And, as part of that mission to speak with the public about climate change, retired Minnesota Public Radio host Gary Eichten interviewed albino unicorn Paul Douglas at a local Evangelical college about climate change.
The interview actually addresses climate change in general, addressing the “faith” side of it for only part of the interview. There is a lot of good information in the interview, and Paul does a great job of modeling how to speak of these issues to a presumably hostile audience.
We are breaking all sorts of records here in Minnesota this June, and not the records for drought (or, for once, cold). It has been raining and storming a lot, and not just in one place as happens now and then. The rains have been widespread and intensive. The flood levels of most rivers are not breaking records because those are set in the earlier Spring snow-melt driven flooding, but this time of year all the creeks, kills, and rivers should be receding not rising.
The situation is so interesting and important that our local public TV political weekly put the weather on top of the show and interviewed meteorologist Paul Douglas about it. Starting just after 3 minutes. Note especially his very important comment at 7:13!!!:
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.
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.
Last night I attended a talk by meteorologist Paul Douglas, at the Eden Prairie High School. The talk was “Weird Weather: Minnesota’s New Normal? Our Changing Climate and What We Can Do About It,” and it was sponsored by Environment Minnesota, Cool Planet, and the Citizens Climate Lobby. I didn’t count the number of people in the audience but it was well attended (over 100, for sure). Extra chairs had to be brought in.
You probably know of Paul Douglas either because of his own fame or because I often link to (or facebook-post) his blogs at Weather Nation or the Star Tribune, and I frequently post his videos. Paul is an Evangelical Christian Republican who insists that we must adhere to the data and the science. He is outspoken on climate change, global warming, and science denialism, and he is sincere, thorough, and forceful in these areas. I consider him to be a very close ally. The contrast between what Republicans seem to think as a cultural group, and what Evangelical Christians seem to think as a cultural group, and what Paul advocates makes him, in his own words, a Human Albino Unicorn.
The talk, as something organized by three environmental activist groups, had the usual suspects in attendance. I recognized several fellow activists from the Twin Cities area, including individuals from 350.org and Obama’s OFA. I had the sense that I was attending a Democratic Farm Labor (that’s what we call Democrats ‘round these parts) convention being run by a Reasonable Republican.
Needless to say, Paul provided an excellent presentation that would have provided any skeptic sitting near the fence a gate to pass through when the moment was right. His talk would have likely convinced any dyed-in-the-wool septic in attendance to at least be quiet about the skepticism and let others take the conversation for a while. Paul tied together several reasons to respect the science and to act on it, touching on diverse perspectives including personal morality, concern for our children and grandchildren, business acumen, responsibility for the Earth’s environment, conservative political thinking, and (briefly, he did not belabor this point) religion.
Since I’m all into climate change and stuff, and give presentations on the topic myself, there wasn’t much new that hit me on the head, though I saw a lot of other heads being whacked with facts and ideas in the room. But there were two things that gave me a double take. They were both brought up in the question and answer period.
One came as part of the answer to the question, why isn’t there more climatology, and in particular, climate change, in with the weather reporting on local TV? I should note right away that this is one of the reasons you should read Paul’s blog. You get the weather AND the climatology. If you are in the Twin Cities area, his Strib Blog is the place to go. If you are elsewhere in the US or beyond, his Weather Nation blog is the place to go. There is a lot of overlap but somewhat different regional coverage. Anyway, Paul’s answer included this: On news TV, global warming is toxic. Meaning, specifically, stating the basic fact that global warming is established science is not really allowed on standard news TV, local or national. The False Balance sells, admitting the facts is boring. More importantly, stating that climate change is real and important will piss off 30% of the audience and the people running the news shows don’t want that. The anchors, including the weather reporters, are to be beloved, not reviled. So “just don’t do that” is the policy in newsrooms.
The other whack on the head was in relation to a question that I thought at first was a bit obnoxious but then I realized it was one of those questions that IS obnoxious but usefully so, and necessary. The question was, in short, “Is there anybody in this room that didn’t already believe in global warming before this talk … was anyone’s mind changed?”
One person raised their hand to indicate a changed mind (everyone cheered) but this apparent fact was left on the table: This talk didn’t do anything but reinforce everyone’s existing position. That was a bit depressing at first.
However, I think the implication and factual basis of that question were wrong. First, there were probably several climate change denialists in that room, but they simply chose not to raise their hands either because they would have been deeply embarrassed or because their mind was not changed. I recognized one person that I’ve encountered before who is a denialist, and he remained silent. I have given talks on climate change attended by people I know are denialists and they’ve stayed silent or asked questions that did not indicate their denialism. So, yes, there are people in the audience who do not “believe in global warming” and I suspect a talk like Paul’s would have an effect on them, eventually.
Also, this: Nobody should “believe in global warming.” That’s where Paul separates his own beliefs (i.e., that there should be Republicans at all 🙂 … or his religious beliefs which are based on faith) and a scientific approach to life, including both business and climate. A different question might have been, “Was there anything in Paul Douglas’s talk that you didn’t know before, about climate change, that you now know? Did you learn anything new either about climate or about how to talk about climate, in this talk?” The answer to that would have been, for almost everyone in the room, “Yes, many things.”
And this is a very important reason why “preaching to the converted” is important. Anti-climate science industrial interests spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on public engagement to develop and shore up their political position. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year buys a lot of rhetoric, but it does not buy one drop of truth. But truth by itself is not enough. Grassroots organizing and the power of citizenry, when armed with the truth, is enough to effect major change if it is sustained long enough over a sufficient range of the population (and done well). Last night’s talk was a highlight moment for local and regional activism in support of the planet we live on. Those who attended will keep Paul’s talk with them for decades, and it will supply them with tools and ideas, and perhaps most importantly, inspiration and hope, regardless of their personal staring point.
For the 5th time in 23 years, the world’s leading climate scientists have released an update on the state of the climate. WeatherNation Chief Meteorologist reviews the highlights plus shares the panel’s predictions for the rest of the century.
You hear, again again, that climate and weather are not the same thing. This has led to assertions such as “you can’t attribute a single weather event to climate change.” But climate and weather are not distinctly different. Climatologists and meteorologists have made statements like this because people do confuse and conflate current conditions and weather forecasts on one hand with climate systems and climate change observations and modeling on the other. Saying “climate and weather are not the same thing” is a convenient segue into a discussion of how certain conclusions may be invalid or at least, underpowered. For example, we have seen that certain types of American voters change their opinion about global climate change depending on the current weather. Those who self identify as Independents “believe in” climate change if had been unusually hot over the previous 48 hours, but if it had been cooler than expected over that period of time they don’t accept the truth of climate change as readily. This is conflating and confusing weather and climate in respect to one of the most important differences between the two: time scale.
Weather and climate can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. That analogy is limited but useful. So, if one is going to walk around with weather in one’s pocket, there’s going to be climate in there too, just like if you are going to walk around with maple leaves in your pocket there’s going to be some loons in there at the same time. One can also think of weather as the short term and, possibly, geographically smaller face of climate, the latter being big in time and space. Thus, thinking of the two as “not the same thing” would be like thinking of the tail of a tiger as not the same thing as a tiger. That is somewhat true but if you yank on the tail, there will be a tiger there asking questions about that.
Over the last several months, we have done a pretty good job of putting aside the incorrect notion that a particular weather event can’t be linked to climate change. There are minimally two ways that the two are linked for a given weather event. One is that a weather event is what it is because of energy (heat) in the air and on sea and land (but mainly sea) surfaces and the distribution of water vapor in the atmosphere. Both of these things, heat and water, are different now than they were 100 years ago, or 30 years ago, because of climate change. Therefore, every single weather event, being functions of heat and water distribution and dynamics, is different than previously because of climate change. Some say that the extra energy raises the baseline for weather, but I don’t like that analogy because it is directional. Raising the baseline sounds like everything will then be more of something, more of the same thing (more hot, more wet, for example). But in fact, weather with climate change can be more wet or more dry (really, both, at the same time but in different places, or both in the same place but at different times) because of the reconfiguration of the water cycle due to climate change. Same with heat. Under climate change, we have increased extremes of both heat and cold (though on average conditions are warmer, but you need to average things out to see that). So the “raised baseline” explanation makes it harder for people to understand both floods and droughts as well as both heat waves and cold snaps, as being more severe as a result of climate change.
Rather than referring to a raised baseline, I’d rather refer specifically to a change in the configuration of heat and water. That is more accurate and people can understand that. To use a more appealing metaphor, one could say that when the various elements of the climate system, as a committee of forces and raw materials, sits down at the table to make the weather these days, that committee consists of individuals with much more polarized attitudes so the result is a bigger range of outcomes. Classically, we anthropomorphize the elements, Old Man Winter, the North Winds, giants bowling in the sky; Under climate change these characters are feeling their oats and demanding more, and the result is less compromise and more fluctuation between extreme outcomes.
The baseline metaphor does work well for certain specific areas of climate, though. For example, as the ice melts every year and reforms on the Arctic Sea, the baseline of ice reduces every year (thus the loss of “old ice”). Or, the sea level rises due to melting glaciers and thermal expansion every year, so the baseline for storm surges and coastal flooding, as well as the twice daily high tide line, goes up over time.
The second major way that climate and weather are linked (not unrelated to the first) is through configuration of major features of the sea and air. This is more complicated, more unknown, more recent, and more scary in some ways. If you follow the news about hurricanes, you’ll hear about a hurricane or tropical storm out in the Atlantic, and notice that the National Weather Service has drawn a line showing where that hurricane will go over the next week or so. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it, given that over time hurricanes go in many different directions along many different paths. But somehow they know where it is going to go and they are generally pretty close to correct these days. They also know how strong or weak the hurricane will get over time.
The way they do this is by understanding the effects of huge masses of air, and the distribution of sea surface temperatures. The Earth’s layer of air is like the surface of a fast moving stream. If you look at the surface of a stream you’ll see that parts of the stream are up high, like a hill, and others are down low. If you look more closely, you’ll see that most of the low parts are moving faster than the high parts, and if there are eddies (whirlpools) they are in the low spots. One could think of the air as acting like this, where the high spots are high pressure systems and the low spots are low pressure systems. In the atmosphere those high areas tend to determine where the low areas are going to form and where they will move, and how fast. A hurricane is just one of the lows, but more concentrated in energy than most (and with a number of other differences). The highs, typically less “visible” to us mere earthlings looking out our window (those are the clear mild days) are mapped at large scale and their configuration used to plot the future course of the big storms. (This is an oversimplification that ignores, fore example, the very important effect of jet streams, which actually require math to understand. I have noticed that any atmospheric system that requires calculus to describe causes severe weather. Just sayin’.)
Although the air covering our planet is very different from a stream surface, it has high and low areas and if you know where everything is on one day, all the highs and lows, you can be sure they are not going to be too different the next day. We also know the direction in which these features will usually move. In other words, the distribution of high and low regions in the atmosphere is measurable and predictable, to a very large degree.
With climate change, the basic configuration of lows and highs changes. We have seen a fundamental change in the way air is distributed in the far north, around Canada, Siberia, and farther north to the Arctic. These days, the air does stuff … climate stuff … in that region fairly often that it used to do only occasionally. A result is that the distribution of warm and cool air is different, thus the heat waves and cold snaps. Another result is the direction in which low pressure systems get steered during certain times of the year and in certain regions; thus, Superstorm Sandy hitting New York and New Jersey. Superstorm Sandy, a hurricane, was supposed to turn right. All the other storms turn right. If a storm hits the Northeastern US it hits it from the south before turning right, but usually a glancing blow or as a much diminished storm. Sandy got big and turned left instead of getting smaller and veering right. Climate change caused that weather event.
I mentioned sea surface temperatures as one of the changes that affects the overall configuration of weather qualitatively and not just quantitatively. Not only is the surface of the ocean generally warmer, but where the warm spots are has changed. Recently, the Gulf Stream has stalled. This means that warm water that normally runs up the US coast and disperses across the North Atlantic is hanging around in the Western Atlantic longer, and that area thus get warmer. For this reason, any of those big tropical storms and hurricanes that normally go north and get weak are going to go north and stay strong, or even strengthen. Then, more of them will turn left instead of right because of the new configuration of air masses. This means that all those people who have moved from New York to Florida over the last 50 year to get near hurricanes can move back to the Northeast and still have their hurricanes!
You can see a pattern here. Climate change alters both quantitative and qualitative aspects of climate. Quantitative changes in weather involve more extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) and more extreme water related conditions (floods and droughts). Climate change alters the qualitative aspects of climate in such a way that what happens where and when has shifted. Quantitaviely, more North American spring and early storms may have more tornados; Qualitatively, tornado alley now includes a big swath of Canada, and Dixie alley (the southeastern tornado region) will probably have more “off season” storms. Quantitatively, we may have more tropical storms form or transition to hurricanes, and those hurricanes may be stronger than before. Qualitatively, where they go seems to have changed; Historically, a very large percentage of Atlantic hurricanes go north, turn right, weaken, and make Iceland and Svalbard foggy and wet, but now some of those storms will stay strong and turn left. We have yet to see if this will qualitatively alter Nor’easters, to bring them ashore more often, but quantitatively storms like Nemo are clearly more common than they were decades ago. The Great Storm of 78 was a once in a lifetime storm that was not expected to happen again any time soon. Since then, that sort of storm has become commonplace in New England.
And this all brings up a problem. For some reason, possibly innocent reasons possibly nefarious ones, many TV weather reporters, many of whom are meteorologists, have been on the denialism side of global warming. Here in Minnesota, we once had three main news stations with weather. One of them had a meteorologist who occasionally downplayed climate change (in those days, it was always called global warming) and even got snarky about it. Another weather reporter, who was a meteorologist, seemed to be quit open to the idea that climate was changing. (I never watched the third station so I don’t know what was going on there.) Over time, the former became a more vehement climate change denier, and the latter a more outspoken climate hawk. The former always gave good weather reports. The latter always gave outstanding weather reports. The former is still at his station reporting weather but I think he stopped talking about climate change. The latter is Paul Douglas, who to all Minnesotans is a hero and icon of intelligent weather forecasting.
Then a thing happened that often happens in Minnesota. We are a donor state to the rest of the country. We produce great local politicians, like Hubert Humphrey and Water Mondale, but then thy go off to the White House or Congress and become nationally important. A Minnesotan took the luke warm trend of putting the wheels on your skates in a row and turned that into Rollerblades, which the world has embraced. Many years ago a quiet non-assuming Minnesotan with a cabin on the lake strapped barrel staves to his feet and got his friend to try to pull him around behind the motorboat on a rope. Today, waterskiing is everywhere.
Paul Douglas left his post as meteorologist at WCCO (CBS) a few years ago, and at that point I pretty much stopped watching local news. WCCO still had Don Shelby, and I still had to watch the news for various reasons sometimes, but without Paul giving the weather, really, what’s the point? I can get mediocre weather from the Internet. But Paul had plans, apparently. He founded a new network which you may or may not have heard of called Weather Nation, which is now on several cable channels. It’s like the Weather Channel but different. I don’t get the Weather Channel but I do get Weather Nation, and that’s what I watch. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I tune in when Paul is doing one of his overviews, but usually it is someone else. He’s not the weather forecaster any more, he’s the owner. (And if you knew the details of how he got his start on TV that would be even more interesting!)
Paul raised a lot of interest in climate change when he published a “Message from a Republican Meteorologist on Climate Change” last year. Yes, there are some good Republicans. Well, there’s Paul, anyway. Do read the letter, and send it to all of your Republican friends and relatives!
What if. What if over the last few decades most of the TV meteorologists were Paul Douglas, or at least, like him. The general public would have been informed of climate change the best way possible, by understanding the nature of climate and how it is changing from the view of the local weather one experiences. That is possible and reasonable because climate and weather are not different things. They are two overlapping views of the way air and water on this planet work. If every TV meteorologists had been like Paul Douglas over the last 20 years, I’d venture to say we’d be 50 ppm of Carbon Dioxide lower than we are now and more on our way to a green economy. We’d have a chance to address this problem of climate change.
We can fix this whole thing with two simple devices: A time machine and a cloning machine. Somewhere in a small town in Minnesota, perhaps there is some innovative guy named Ollie Knutson working on that….