Tag Archives: Weather

Weather, Climate Change, Influenza, and Wizards

Attributing major weather related disasters, such as the current wildfires in California or the recent heat waves in Japan, to climate change is a little like attributing deaths due to respiratory illness to influenza.

Before going further with that concept, let me be clear: Those extreme weather events are highly unlikely to have happened had there been no global warming. Not only does global warming increase the chances of those events happening, but also, in some cases, without global warming it would be almost impossible for certain events to occur. Warming of the planet due to the human release of greenhouse gases has quantitatively changed key aspects of the Earth’s weather system so extremes in one direction (like heat, stronger storms, flooding, etc) are more common and more severe. It also appears that human caused global warming has qualitatively changed the climate so things happen now that would simply not have been a thing in the past, or that would have been very rare indeed.*

The comparison between the flu and global warming is not an analogy. Or it wouldn’t be a very good one, in any case, assuming a good analogy takes a concept you are very familiar with and points out parallels between that system and some system you understand less. Indeed, I assume you understand the idea that a warmer world makes for more heat waves pretty clearly, and at the same time, I’m pretty sure most people don’t actually know how we even know how bad a flu season is. I don’t assume everyone understands influenza, so I know I did not just hand out an “aha!” moment by which a greater understanding of climate change will result.

It is, rather, an imperfect but serious comparison that helps us understand a third concept: why fighting over attribution of climate change, in the press and the beer halls and on the street, is stupid and bad.

Did you know that every flu season in the US, a lot of people get the flu, and some of them die? I’m pretty sure you did, and the reason you know is that you learned it on the news, or from your friends, or in health class, or by reading a book on the flu. No one disputes it. Even Fox News says it is true. You won’t see Trump tweeting in all caps about how it doesn’t actually happen.

But what you might not know is that it is the epidemiologists who tell us this, and give us important details such as “we are having a bad flu season” or “the flu hasn’t really arrived in Ohio yet but it is coming” or “other than long term care facilities, where it is still a problem, this year’s flu season is mostly over” and such, don’t directly observe the flu’s spread across the landscape. They are, rather, attributing an easily made observation to a specific cause, in a way that is conceptually similar to how climate scientists attribute wildfires and such to the human release of greenhouse gas. The methods are different, and the climate scientists have the upper hand on their data. While epidemiologists looking at the flu only actually directly measure the presence or effect of influenza in a small number of cases, climate scientists have thousands of measurement points taking data every hour, satellites, and all sorts of other probes.

When someone dies of influenza, we usually know that because there is an autopsy or some other carefully made observation in a hospital. When someone is put in an intensive care unit because of influenza, we usually know that. When a privileged wealthy suburban kid gets a really bad case of something, they will often get tested and then we’ll know for sure if they have the flu, as opposed to some other thing. But when most people get all those symptoms we think of as “the flu,” we never really know what they had, and it is simply true that during the flu season, there are a lot of other things going around, and only a percentage of people “with the flu” are actually infected with influenza.

But, it turns out that when influenza spreads through a population, the relatively small scale sampling that government epidemiologists do picks that spread up, and allows for reasonable estimates of what kinds of virus is out there, how sick it is making people, and a rough estimate of how dense the disease is on the landscape.

Meanwhile, schools keep track of kids being out sick, and hospitals and clinics keep track of who is complaining about flu like symptoms. So, epidemiologists (and I’m oversimplifying here) combine information they have from direct observation of actual influenza infection with information they have on “flu like symptoms” appearance and other indicators of general public health, with carefully developed and continuously refined modeling and statistical analysis. They then attribute a certain percentage of the flu like symptoms to the actual flu, not on a case by case basis but on a population level, by state and across the country, using science.

And almost nobody even knows that, and almost nobody really cares. We just want to know how bad it is, what the timing is, and that sort of thing. We trust the system to give us that information and it does. We know they know a lot more than we do about how do to this, and we are busy with other things. It would require some powerful derp to come up with a conspiracy theory about how the flu isn’t real. If anything, the average American has it backwards. People get really sick from a bad version of the common cold and claim they have the flu a lot more often than people get the flu and claim there is no such thing as influenza.

At present, thanks to a recent paper in Nature and some talk in the New York Times and elsewhere, we are seeing a lot of talk about attribution, the process of linking global warming to weather disasters. But I warn you that much of it is uninformed and somewhat misleading. For example, a recent article in a major science oriented magazine talked about attribution of weather events to climate change, and made the valid points that a) we can do that and b) yes, much of what we see happening in the area of bad weather is climate change caused. But that article missed a LOT of key information about attribution science, focusing, I assume for rhetorical reasons, on only one part of attribution science. Unfortunately the author chose the method of attribution that tends to underestimate the link between cause and effect.

I’m pretty sure the same thing would happen if we saw a major public discussion on influenza. You might learn a lot from reading the public literature, but you wouldn’t qualify for a Masters degree in epidemiology on the basis of that learning.

It would like a little like the famous Harris cartoon shown here. But instead of “then a miracle occurs” it would be “this part is complex so I’ll skip it.” And it is complex.

In climate science, there are a number of very complex problems that cause scientists to not be able to directly communicate to the average person what is happening. A great example is the understanding of “sensitivity.” Broadly speaking, this means just how much will global temperature change with a change in atmospheric greenhouse gas. This is incredibly complicated to figure out, and requires a number of assumptions that we are not totally certain about. However, the overall theoretical framework is solid and unassailable. But since some of the details have wiggle room, the actual numbers are hard to pin down. Then, once a reasonable range is produced, there is a fair amount of wiggle room as to when the change in temperature will be fully realized. The fact that it takes a certain amount of time is actually related to the fact that there must be a range of estimates, because rates of change are in some cases linked to how much change there will be. (Ie., methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, but it breaks down over years or decades. So “postive feedback” from methane can exacerbate warming and cause other systems to jump in and also exacerbate warming. But how much of this happens will depend on the rate methane is introduced and how fast it breaks down. And since much of the methane that is added to the environment comes form melting permafrost or warming Arctic seas that cover underwater solid methane, adding sea level rise can change those calculations … and so on and so forth.)

Skipping the complex step, or totally ignoring the more complex methodologies, has a benefit. This may make it easier to get the point across.

But it has a serious downside. It allows nefarious wizards to work their magic. This is an easy extension of Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We all assume, in this modern well informed world, that this law applies only to some other people in some other place or time where they don’t have radios. But it very much applies to us. If the details of the science are beyond comprehension if you don’t have the right PhD, or worse, left out of the conversation entirely because the author of the public literature doesn’t understand (or even know about) it, then nefarious wizards can swoop in and make up stuff that is based on equally hidden logic or method.

Scientists using science that includes methods hidden for the benefit of explanation** allows for anti-science actors to swoop in and manipulate that ignorance, manipulate that view of knowledge as the product of magic, and manipulate the weak of mind or give tools to those who prosper from the spread of willful ignorance. The nefarious wizards exploit almost unavoidably occult scientific method to control the deplorables and serve the purveyors of dark money.

I proffer the parallel cases of tracking flu seasons and attributing bad weather to anthropogenic climate change to point out that the difference in the debate about the two is a matter of nefarious wizardry. Next time you run into a climate science denier, not only check your wallet, but makes sure your defense against the dark arts skills are up to snuff.


*It is possible to imagine a world without hurricanes, if the oceans and continents were configured a certain way. In the modern configuration of continents and oceans, hurricanes are concentrated in specific areas of the ocean, and occur during certain time frames. When they occur, they tend to form in certain places, grow over a wide range of time frames, but usually not too fast, and they have characteristics that are determined by how hurricanes form and maintain in relation to the environment around them. Many of these features show signs of changing, or have simply gone off the charts already.

Hurricanes have become more common, and stronger. There are eight main regions in which tropical cyclones (which includes hurricanes) form. The dates of the observations of each area’s most powerful storm (there are nine because Australia has a tie) are 1979, 1999, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2004, 2005, 2015, and 2016. A hurricane forming in certain areas is very rare. A hurricane in the South Atlantic is unheard of. In recent years we’ve had one South Atlantic hurricane, and at least one major storm formed in the part of the Indian Ocean basin where no one was expecting one to form. A hurricane limits its own growth by churning hot surface water into deeper cooler water is common, but recently hurricanes that do not to that because there are no deeper cool waters in that churning zone have happened several times in recent years. A hurricane that goes from “nothing to see here” to full on hurricane in one or two days is almost impossible. We thought. Now, rapid formation is more common, which is a big problem since it can take days for the current system to decide if there should be an evacuation, and to carry it out. A major quantitative shift in the hurricane system in the US is the change from the assumption of evacuation to the assumption of not evacuating in certain areas no matter how bad the storm is. That is a combined function of increased storm severity, decreased formation time, and unfettered thoughtless human development in certain areas.

**I do not refer here to methods hidden completely, hidden from other scientists, or the interested public. That is a separte issue, and is not very common. Pretty much all of the climate science is public and open, despite accusations from deniers of science.

Making Sense of Weather and Climate

Read Making Sense of Weather and Climate: The Science Behind the Forecasts, by Mark Denny if you want to … well, do what the title of the book says.

I know a lot of you are interested in global warming/climate change, so you need to know that this book is not mainly about that (but it is covered). Rather, this book is the Rosetta Stone that allows you to connect a general understanding of the planet (it is round, it spins, it has an atmosphere that includes water vapor, and tends to reside between -50 and +50 degrees C, etc.) and the person on the TV talking about air masses going up and down and what is going to happen during “the overnight” and “the overday” and such. Continue reading Making Sense of Weather and Climate

El Nino Effects For This Spring in the US

The US NOAA has this video summarizing what they expect for weather in the US as the result of the current, winding down, El Nino:

2016 Spring Climate and Flood Outlook

As a near-record El Niño begins to wind down, NOAA issued its spring seasonal outlooks for flooding, drought, precipitation, and temperature. Flood risk is highest in the lower Mississippi valley and along the Southeast coast. Learn more at: http://go.usa.gov/c7xYx

Posted by NOAA Climate.Gov on Thursday, March 17, 2016

How scientists unraveled the El Niño mystery

The Road to Paris is a web site created by the ICSU, “…a non-governmental organization representing a global membership that includes both national scientific bodies (121 National Members representing 141 countries) and International Scientific Unions (30 Members),” founded in 1931. If the ICSU had not existed when the UN was formed, the UN would have formed it. Think of the ICSU as the UN of Science. More or less.

(Follow Road to Paris on Twitter.)

Anyway, Road to Paris refers to the 2015 international meetings on climate change, and the purpose of the web site is to provide excellent information about climate change, up to date, so those engaged in that process, either as direct participants or as onlookers, will be well informed.

Fishing in pink waters: How scientists unraveled the El Niño mystery” is an amazing piece of work written by Daniel Gross (I made minuscule contributions), looking at the history of the science of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, which is one of the most important climate or weather related things on this planet. This is timely, because we are expecting an El Niño to form over the winter. Maybe. Well, eventually we will have an El Niño. (It has been an unusually long time since the last strong one.)

Please visit this web page, read it, enjoy it (it is highly interactive), and spread it around.

What will this winter be like in North America?

The Polar Vortex hurt. We who lived in it, through it, with it, are like farm animals that got zapped by the electric fence a couple of times … notice all that long grass growing by the fence. Stay away. It hurt! So we are worried that this will happen again.

It is a reasonable worry, from a scientific point of view. The Polar Vortex visitation last winter was the result of changes to trade winds and jet streams that has characterized our weather for the last few years. One of the big questions on my mind is this: Are wavy jet streams and corresponding changes in the distribution of excessive rainfall and drought likely to become spatially patterned? In other words, is it likely that when the Polar Vortex wanders that it will tend to wander to the same small set of locations, like Siberia or North America? So far this seems to be at least partly true. The drought in California has not been maintained because of a lack of rainfall at that latitude, but rather, a lack of certain seasonal precipitation (winter snows) at that longitude, because of the oft-cited “ridiculously resilient ridge” which is actually one of several standing waves in the polar jet stream that shunts wet air around California, to places the Midwest. It is conceivable that the Polar Vortex, as part of the climate change induced “new normal,” will wanter off-pole and onto a landmass (either Eurasia or North America) often-ish, from now on, or until continued global warming results in some other pattern which we’ll probably call “New Normal 2.0”.

This is a question I’ve asked various scientists who are working on this problem. The answer I’ve gotten so far has been, paraphrased, “Yeah, I don’t know, maybe, we’re thinking about that. Get back to you later.”

But there is hope. I’ve put links to three places you can go for more discussion and information below. Here’s the tl;dr. The National Weather Service does a very good job of predicting what winter will be like in North America, but the accuracy of that prediction, unsurprisingly, drops off month by month. So the current prediction is probably pretty good for November/December, but as January and February come along, what is predicted now may be off. With that caveat, these are the salient predictions:

1) There will not be a Polar Vortex excursion into North America. Probably. The thing is, if this is a recent phenomenon and increasing in likelihood, the predictions may be off, but there are good reasons to believe they are not. Don’t assume the Polar Vortex will visit us, but don’t sell your wool pants at that last garage sale of the year.

2) California may actually get some rasonable precipitation this winter. It is hard to say if it will be drought-breaking rain, but it may help.

3) Although winter seems to be starting early this year (with many inches of snow having fallen or about to fall on the Front Range, the Dakotas, etc.) the overall prediction is a somewhat warmer than average winter for most of North America.

4) The Southwest, California, Texas, North-Central Mexico will have a bit more moisture than average, but other than Pacific coastal Mexico, not a lot more. That won’t translate into huge snowfalls except at high elevations. The middle of the country, from Montana to western Ohio and Michigan, south to a line running from southern Idaho across to Florida, including the Southeast, will have average precip. So, Minnesotans may see early snow if it remains cool, but this will not be an exceptionally snowy winter. Less than usual moisture is predicted for Kentucky, Ohio, western Pensylvaina, parts of New York and most of New England. But, this is only a small amount, so don’t sell your snow blower at that garage sale.

Parts of the Pacific Northwest and inland across to western Montana may be a bit dryer than usual.

Overall, temperature wise, no region is expected to be especially cold, mostly somewhat warm. The regions of Canada and Alaska along the Arctic Circle will be very warm (relatively … so many degrees below zero instead of many more degrees below zero) as we would expect with “Arctic Amplification.” Moisture levels, overall, are not going to be extreme in either direction anywhere, though the dry in the Northwest may be noticeable.

In other words, the average person’s perception of weather, which varies from reality a great deal, will include the actual realized variation, if the predictions hold up.

The NWS predictions can be found via this page.

Eric Holthaus has a discussion of the coming winter here.

Paul Douglas of Weather Nation has more here, with a lot of other info relevant to Minnesota.

Can we attribute specific weather events to climate change?

Yes. Not only that, but we can’t separate climate change from any single weather event that ever happens, anywhere, no matter what. So just stop saying that we can’t. Here’s a thought experiment to explain why this is true.

Imagine that climate science is like it is today with a few significant exceptions. First, humans never messed with fossil fuel, using only solar energy. If you need to, you can add in that there are only a half billion humans on the planet because birth control was discovered and implemented earlier in human history and everybody has Obamacare. Second, the climate scientists have a thousand, no, make that five thousand, years of instrumental records of the planet’s weather. Third, there has been virtually unlimited access to super computers and the field is advanced 30 years beyond the present. So, climate science is like it is now plus way smarter and more informed with way more information. Also, there has never been any kind of science denialism on my imaginary Earth, so the negative effects of that particular nefarious activity were never felt, never slowed down progress.

One day astronomers, who are also very advanced in knowledge, understanding, and technology, discover a star that is identical to the Sun, and around it orbits a planet that is identical to the earth. Same atmosphere, similar distribution of continents that move around and stuff, same amount of free water and ratio of land to sea, same orbital geometry, etc. There is only one difference between H’Trae, which is what they named this newly discovered planet, and Earth. The Earth has an equilibrium level of 250ppm of CO2 in its atmosphere and H’Trae has an equilibrium level of 500ppm CO2 in its atmosphere.

The astronomers sent a probe to H’Trae which sent back five years of satellite images from the entire surface in a number of energy bands, so there is a pretty good picture of what is happening there. A thousand dropsondes were dropped across the planet at random intervals which gave more direct atmospheric measurements, and then recorded data from the surface for another couple of years, until the H’Traeans found them, one by one, and ate them. So there’s a lot of data.

There emerges a literature, on “The Climate and Weather of H’Trae,” and it is peer reviewed and widely distributed and it matures and becomes part of the Planetary Science body of knowledge.

Then one day somebody comes along, probably on the Internet, the first known Science Denialist, and says “The amount of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere has no relationship to the climate or weather on H’Trae. None. Any given study that looks at climate or weather on H’Trae that does not independently test to see if having 200% of the CO2 on H’Trae as compared to earth is invalid. The role of a doubling of this gas must be demonstrated anew each time it is proposed or assumed.”

What would the Earthlings do that that person? Ignore him, of course, though they might also be amused to see their first Science Concern Troll. If he got really annoying they might send him off to H’Trae so the H’Traeans eat him.

But they would not take seriously the idea that an increase in one of the most important gasses in the atmosphere, which indubitably alters temperature on average across every cubic meter of the atmosphere and every square meter of the surface, which indubitably increases the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, which seems to indirectly alter the basic nature of major air currents, has nothing to do with the place where the climate rubber meets the temporal road: The weather. It would be an absurd idea.

So why do people keep repeating that as though it made sense?

When is Tornado Season?

This story:

10 tornadoes confirmed in Ga., including one with winds topping 160 mph

Ten tornadoes, one packing winds of more than 160 mph, touched down in parts of Georgia on Wednesday, the National Weather Service said Friday.

The storms caused an estimated $25 million in insured losses, said John W. Oxendine, the state’s insurance commissioner.

“I spent some time surveying damage and talking to residents in Jasper, Putnam and Hancock Counties” on Friday, Oxendine said in statement. “I believe claims will easily reach $25 million. Actual losses are much higher when you consider things like infrastructure damage and uninsured losses.”

Reminds us that Tornado season is coming. Maybe it is already here in parts of the country, or maybe it is a bit early this year in the south. It is important to keep tornadoes in perspective. It would appear that for the last half century, the frequency of tornadoes in the US is rising, though this could be totally or in part because of increases in reporting. Warming climate should result in more tornadoes in areas where tornadoes already occur, or at least that is a reasonable assumption unless countervailing effects can be demonstrated.

So when is tornado season exactly?

Continue reading When is Tornado Season?