First let me check … are all those denialists who have been claiming that wild fires have become rare done talking yet?
Yes, depending on where you go and what you look at we are having a problem with wild fires in the US and elsewhere (i.e., Australia). Part of this is probably due to weather whiplash. Periods of heavier than usual rain means more fuel grows, periods of dry make the fuel ready to burn, maybe even add some extra windy conditions, and the fires are worse than usual. This leads to landslide conditions being worse later on when the unusual rains occur.
Anyway, Climate Hawks Vote has taken note of this and made a meme, the picture above, that I thought you might want to see and share. Also, click here to see how media coverage in California is changing vis-a-vis wildfire and climate change.
After a five-year decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise again. The culprit: a rebounding economy.
CO2 emissions from fossil fuels rose 2.39 percent in 2013 compared with 2012 and grew 7.45 percent for the first two months of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013, according to new data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The jump puts an end to the annual decrease that had occurred from 2008 through 2012.
So be careful of that misleading graph, and keep working on reducing emission. This problem will not solve itself.
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.
This Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego website provides daily updates, analysis, and information on the state of climate. Follow @Keeling_curve to get daily updates of the CO2 value. Through this site, the public can also help support the continuation of the iconic Keeling Curve and of complementary measurements of atmospheric oxygen made at Scripps. These measurements enable society to witness climate change and inform strategies to address it.
I needed a copy of the “False Hope Graph” that Michael Mann painstakingly created for his Scientific American piece “Earth Will Cross the Climate Danger Threshold by 2036” for a presentation I’m doing, but it had to be simpler, leave some stuff off, and be readable across the room on a screen. The original graphic looks like this:
It is a major contribution showing the relationship between climate sensitivity and climate change in the future depending on various important factors. The graphic I made from it is here (click on it to get the big giant version):
You’ll notice I left only one sensitivity + aerosol forcing line on it because in my talk I’ll use that as the most likely. Some of you might find it helpful.
The title of this post is actually the title of a post I want to point you to. It is HERE.
The post is the outcome of a bit of a competition a couple of us have going to make an effective meme (in this case, the girl with the thermometer in her hair) to underscore the fact that “global warming” is different than “surface warming” (or at least, that’s how I’d put it). The former includes the oceans, sea surface, air, ice. The latter includes all that but not the deeper oceans. Since the VAST majority of the excess heat building up because of AGW is in the deeper oceans (below the SST), this should not be forgotten. But it also is. Anyway, so far this is the winning meme. I admit defeat. Temporarily.
There are multiple dimensions along which denialists either get it wrong (because they are not paying attention or don’t understand the data) or making it wrong (because they have an interest in misdirection and misleading others). One is pretending that the weather outside their window is the climate. The other is pretending that climate change only started after Al Gore said it did, or after some other recent date, ignoring the fact that we have been releasing the Carbon Kraken since the early or mid 19th century, when industrialists figured out they could make more money using coal, rather than water, to run their ever expanding acreage of dark satanic mills.
It is hard to say exactly when Anthropogenic Global Warming began because at the start any signal from this effect may have been swamped by non anthropogenic (sometimes called “natural”) variation. The available data suggest that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm) in the 18th century, and started to rise during the last half of the 19th century. After World War II, the rate of rise increased significantly. We know added CO2 increases the global surface temperature and the temperature of the oceans, and melts glacial (and sea) ice through the greenhouse effect. This graph, from here, combines various data sources to show the increase in CO2 emissions over time:
When we look at temperatures over time, we see a close relationship between CO2 and temperature, and we see a slow rise prior to World War II with a more rapid increase after. Another graph, from here:
The increase in temperatures are slow and steady but measurable prior to World War II, and much steeper thereafter. It would be nice to see a graph like this that goes back a little farther in time to match the CO2 graph, but the “instrumental record” mostly post dates the Civil War, and really, the better quality record post dates about 1880. There are records that go way back, tens of millions of years, but they are “proxy” records of a different scale and it is hard to get them on the same graph.
People who (unbelievably) deny that global warming is a real thing will often point to climate events earlier in the 20th century that may resemble modern day events that we think could be related to warming, and say “see, it happened then, so there is no global warming now.” There are several reasons that is wrong. First, often, older records of spectacular weather events may be wrong, incomplete, or not measured like we would like them to have been measured, so going back to old newspaper accounts and such is highly unreliable. So this means that people are criticizing a carefully assembled and verified set of data (recent changes in CO2 and temperature) and complaining that it is no good because of cherry picked observation from “data” that is not controlled or verified. The second reason this is wrong is that there have been very few weather events that could not, really, have happened any time. This does not apply so much to sea level enhanced weather events. If sea level rises then sea or estuary flooding can happen in places it could never have happened before, so that is a qualitative, or base-line, difference. But for the most part, a major cold snap, a high precipitation event, drought, or other event can happen at any time. Climate scientists do not think that there are very many weather events that happen now that could never, ever have happened in the past. Rather, there is concern that some of these classes of events are happening with significantly greater frequency now than in the past.
Was Kansas Not In Kansas Any More For A Decade Or Two?
A third reason this is wrong, which is rarely pointed to but I think important, is that we really don’t know what the association is between two important factors and weather events. First, just how much new CO2 added to the atmosphere does it take to change the weather? Since CO2 records show an increase that started prior to the better quality instrumental record, the entire instrumental record is potentially affected by higher CO2, though of course, this effect would be much less prior to World War II than during more recent times. Second, and related, is this: There may be weather related effects that come not from the specific amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, but from changes in the CO2. The warming effect of added CO2 is not instantaneous, but rather, takes a long time during which time climate or weather related things may change. Adding a specific amount of CO2 to the atmosphere is like turning the stove on under a pot of tap water. The water starts out cool, and over time heats, then it eventually reaches boiling. After that, the temperature does not change; due to the boiling point, the pot of water has reached a new equilibrium and has stopped increasing in heat. But before equilibrium is reached there are constant changes in the heat level of the water inside the pot as well as other things the water is doing, such as pushing out various gasses, forming bubbles, and circulating thermally in the pot. That is a very simple analogy; there may be either simple or complex changes that happen in the Earth’s heat circulation system that occur as a result of added CO2, that involve changes over time, then reach an equilibrium of some sort and stop happening. Perhaps this occurred during the early days of increased CO2.
I have a hypothesis that I’m not aware has been examined. During the 1920s and 1930s, in the US at least, there seems to have been a handful of extreme weather events, including some major tornadoes, big hurricanes, an historic and history changing drought, and a few other things. The Wizard of Oz, the writings of John Steinbeck, and other cultural phenomena are a very interesting proxy for those climate events, in a way. I’m afraid that at the moment the data required to examine this period are not sufficient. But I wonder, looking at the above graphs, if the earlier part of the 20th century saw a metastable shift – changing from one equilibrium to a new and different equilibrium – in weather patterns, caused by CO2 induced warming, the effects of which arose for a while then faded away.
The possibility that extreme events may have happened during some period of a couple of decades early in the 20th century due to anthropogenic global warming does not explain all, or even a majority, of the denialist claims. Most of those claims are probably references to incorrect data or cherry picking of events. The largest and most frequent weather related effects of global warming probably date to the last 20 years. Weather events are known of over many decades before that, and to some extent, even centuries into the past. Therefore, the historical bowl of cherries from which denialists may choose is large. That ratio, between the expanse of historical information and the more limited recent past, is large enough that there are dozens of past events that can be cited, as misrepresentations of reality.
Bicycles Going Backwards
You wouldn’t think it easy to ride a bicycle backwards but it turns out it is. Climate science denialists are good at it, and they can use multiple bicycles at once.
In a recent twitter conversation, an Australian MP challenged John Cook with the false assertion that several studies confirmed that global temperatures have stayed steady or gone down over the last decade or so. When Cook asked for the studies, the MP replied not with any studies, but with a comment about climate models. When pressed further for the studies, the MP claimed he had not promised any such studies and when pressed further changed the conversation to the last 150 years of data. When that did not work he shifted to mention of work that he claimed defied the nearly perfect consensus among both scientists and their peer reviewed papers about climate science. When that did not work he shifted to references in a non-peer reviewed anonymous blog, and then to perceived problems in the peer reviewed process. About that time another climate science denialist attempted to shift the conversation to the alleged (and non-existent) inability of alternative energy sources to work when it is really cold out.
If you have one thing to say that is wrong, it is hard to sustain argument. If you have ten things to say that are wrong, you can sustain the argument by shifting among them as each falsehood is effectively challenged. That form of argument does not advance understanding, but it does sustain the argument, but in a rather vacuous form. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Science denialism thrives in a vacuum.
Fighting With Words
Another dimension along which climate science denialists operate is linguistic. The terms “global warming” and “climate change” mean different things. The former is part of the latter, and in fact, “global warming” is not exactly the same as “anthropogenic global warming.” Within science, we sometimes see extended discussions of the meanings of specific terms. What is a gene? What exactly is the relationship between “founder effect” and “genetic drift?” When is an “adaptation” really an “aptation” or an “exaptation?” These conversations have three characteristics. First, they reflect changes in understanding, or sometimes, conflict between perceptions of natural phenomena that arose independently and then crashed into each other in the literature or at conferences. Second, they are useful conversations because they can expose uncertainties or ambiguities in our actual understanding of nature. Third, despite their short term utility, they eventually become boring and misleading and scientists move beyond them and get back to the actual science, eventually.
But terminology has another use, and that is obfuscation. It is often said by denialists that scientists changed from using the term “global warming” to “climate change” for one or another nefarious reasons. We also see denialists claiming that scientists used to study “climate change” and that included both global warming and global cooling, but then changed to global warming because they could make more money on it. (I wish I knew how that worked!) Recently, Rush Limbaugh, the intellectual leader of the American right wing, claimed that scientists made up the term “Polar Vortex” in order to advance tax and spend liberal ideas. The famous NBC weatherman, Al Roker, and others, noted that the term “Polar Vortex” was already there, as a term referring to a real thing, and Roker even showed the term in use in his meteorology textbook from the mid 20th century. Indeed, here is a Google Ngram Viewer result of a search for the term “Polar Vortex” in all the books Google has indexed:
Note that the term is way old, predating 1950, and had a peak in usage druing the late 80s and through the early 90s, probably related to an increased rate of study of this phenomenon that happened because of concern over the Ozone Hole.
Fighting with words was codified by, if not invented by, the Ancient Greeks. It is called sophistry, or at least, is a subset of that practice, whereby arguments are made in large part on the basis of rhetorical style or method. You see people do this all the time. If someone you know is in a grumpy mood, or does not want to admit they’ve made a mistake, they may resort to a sophistic argument.
“Sorry I’m late, I got lost because they changed what’s on the corner of your street and it confused me.”
“They never changed what’s on the corner of my street.”
“Yes they did, there used to be a coffee shop, now it’s a pet grooming place.”
“Yeah, but it’s still the same building, they never changed what’s on the corner. You got lost because you don’t like me any more.”
That sort of thing.
Science denialists look silly when they do this sort of thing, but apparently they don’t know that. And, the method is related to the backpedalling bicycles. You can always shift the conversation to the apocryphal shift between the terms “global warming” and “climate change,” implying a conspiracy among scientists, when the going gets tough.
This seems to happen a lot with hurricanes. When the Bush Administration wanted to avoid taking responsibility for a poor response to Katrina, someone actually said that the major damage done to New Orleans was not due to Katrina, but rather, to flooding. This idea was bolstered by noting that the hurricane had made landfall at a different time and place than the flooding. That, in turn, was based on the idea of “landfall” being related to the location of the eye of the storm; but the eye of a hurricane is tiny compared to the entire storm, which may be hundreds of miles across. We saw this again with Sandy. Sandy was a pretty bad hurricane, but it lost its hurricane status just before making “landfall” (though the leading edge of the storm had been on land for a long time already). Just before hitting land, Sandy integrated with another storm system, which actually made the thing a super storm with much more impact than just a hurricane, but in so morphing changed enough that it no longer fit the definition of a hurricane. Then it hit New Jersey and New York. So, those who wish to deny the importance of hurricanes simply claim that when Sandy flooded Manhattan and the New Jersey shore, and caused widespread damage, loss of life, and injury in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, that did not count as a hurricane related event. Sophistry.
The final dimension of argument I want to mention is perhaps the silliest of all, and we see it in widespread use far beyond the area of climate science denialism. The idea is simple. All major advances in science have come about when almost everyone thinks a certain thing but they are all wrong, but a small number of individuals know the truth, like Galileo’s attack on a geocentric universe.
While it is true that such things have happened, in history, they have not happened that often in science. For example, Einstein’s revision of several areas of science fit with existing science but modified it, though significantly. Subatomic theory did not replace the atom, but rather, entered the atom. The discovery and characterization of DNA was a major moment in biology, but the particulate nature of inheritance had long been established. Darwin did not change the existing science of nature, but rather, verified long held ideas about evolution and, dramatically, proposed a set of mechanisms not widely understood in his day. Science hardly ever gets Galileoed, and even Galileo did not Galileo science; he Galileoed religion. Even his insightful contribution was accretive.
There is a demented logic behind the Galileo claim. If every one thinks one thing, and one person thinks something different, that high ratio of differential is itself proof that the small minority is correct. But the truth is that consensus, or what we sometimes call “established science,” is usually coeval with alternative beliefs the vast majority of which are wrong, most of which do not even come from the science itself, but rather, from sellers of snake oil, individuals or entities that would benefit from the science being questioned, or from individuals with delusional ideas. Even if there is now and then a view held by a small minority that is actually more correct than the majority view, we can’t establish veracity by measuring rarity. Chances are, a view of nature held by only a few is wrong. This simple numbers game is not how we should be seeking truth, but if one does engage in the numbers game, then dissenting views of established science can be assumed to be wrong, if you were going to place a bet.
Climate Science Denialism along Multiple Dimensions
It seems to me, and others have noted this, that there is an uptick in the activity levels of climate science denialism. This seems to have started just prior to the release of the first draft documents of the IPCC report on climate change last year. Perhaps it is also being fueled by efforts linked to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Denialists have recently used the fact that about one or two percent of the Earth’s surface is experiencing a dramatic cold wave, which is quite possibly an effect of climate change, to question global warming, even in a winter where the Earth is exceptionally warm. Sophistry abounds. There is so much cherry picking going on that I fear for a shortage of cherries, which really should be reserved for making pies and jam. Backwards pedaled bicycles are whizzing about. But the denialists do not seem to have increased in number or even reach. Last November, there was a project called #ClimateThanks in which people were asked to tweet thanks, using the #ClimateThanks hashtag for those individuals and organizations who have been doing or promoting the results of good climate science. The denialists jumped on that bandwagon, producing numerious anti-science tweets and retweets. But if you look at the tweets and the tweeters from the denialist gaggle, while they were many most had few followers, and some of the tweeting entities even seemed to have been made up or brought out of mothballs for the purpose. They amounted to little more than a large collection of small wanna-be-Galileos.
It is probably true that the biggest problem we have in advancing a productive conversation about climate change is the tenacious insistence on false balance in the media. It isn’t just FOX News that thinks it is OK to place real science and politically motivated propaganda on the same stage, as though they had equal merit. False balance, which may be spreading as a phenomenon in major media at a time it should be diminishing, is probably the best friend of the denialist community.
Meanwhile, the denialsts have repeatedly shown themselves to be wrong, along many and diverse dimensions.
First, there is no hiatus. Climate science skeptics claim that warming stopped in 1998. It didn’t. Stefan Rahmstorf has a nice post placing 2013 in context with the most recent data, HERE. Just click the “translate” button to read it in your favorite language.
Stefan has a bunch of great graphics that you will enjoy. Following his lead I’ve decided to make a graphic or two myself.
First, the data. NASA has this data to which people often refer when discussing global warming. I took that database and fixed it up a bit. I deleted the first year because there’s some missing data and who cares about only one year anyway. Then, I converted all the values to degrees C rather than hundreds of degrees off a baseline. I also calculated a rank for each year in reference to the entire database. You can download the data as a comma delimited file here. Let me know if that link doesn’t work for you, I’ll be happy to send you the file. Please cite the original (linked to above) if you use this.
Using these data I made this handy graphic showing “surface temperatures” (air and sea surface) over time from 1881 to the present.
When people talk about the hiatus in climate change, or the pause in climate change, what this means is that the slope of the temperature curve for a particular period of time is at or near zero, or negative. What actually happens is that the slope of the curve for a given interval, say 10 years, goes up and down over time. If the temperature was varying around a mean, and not going up over time, the sum of those slopes would be zero, but if there is an average increase in temperature the sum of all the different slopes (of a given interval) one can calculate will be positive.
This is actually a slightly strange way of looking at the data, but I think it is constructive, especially given that the so-called-pause is a dead horse and we are hear to beat it. Look at the chart above. Imagine taking any given ten year period and calculating a slope for that period. Then another and another and another, until you’ve measured out a slope for every ten year period … not just every ten years, but every possible interval of ten consecutive years. This would be a “moving slope” and a graph of it would look like this:
What this shows is that for the vast majority of ten year intervals since 1889 (so the first interval is 1880-1889) the slope of the temperature curve is positive, going up, increasing. It also shows what looks like a remarkably periodic increase and decrease in this slope, with only a few dips below zero. That’s presumably due to oscillations such as ENSO or other factors. Also, most of those dips are from fairly far back in time, and this happens rarely in recent years. We are currently in a period of positive change (upward temperature swings) but currently reduced. But if you look at this graph you can see that there are OFTEN periods of time when the upward slope is very high and other periods when it is very low but still above zero almost always. I hope this helps put the “hiatus” into perspective.
I also made this graph of each year’s rank for the entire period represented by the data set.
Again, this is a slightly unusual way of depicting the data, but it may be helpful. All of the highest ranked years … top ten or so … are from very recent time. The graph has grid lines at every 10 ranks. This lets you quickly identify the period of time over which the top 10, or 20, or 30, or whatever, warmest year according to this data set occurred. There are no top ten years prior to about 1998. All of the top 30 warmest years post date the early 1970s. And so on.
OK, so let’s look at the hiatus again. The hiatus is supposed to be a period of no global warming since 1998. Here’s a closeup of the original chart (above) for that period of time:
What we see here, with the trend line included to make it easier to read, is an increase in global temperature, on average, during this so called hiatus period. But, by picking 1998 as a starting point, climate science denialists have managed to flatten the curve out quite a bit. That’s called cherry picking.
Now let’s arbitrarily double the period of interest, to include the entire so-called hiatus and the same amount of time back before the so-called hiatus. What does the graph look like then? Here, I’ve tried to keep all the scales the same so you can see the shorter “hiatus” period as part of this larger graph. You can also see that 1998 was an exceptionally warm year, which is why you’d want to pick it as the beginning of your fake hiatus period if you were a damn liar. Have a look.
Let’s look at those so called hiatus years in yet another way. Here, we have the graph of the temperature by years (with the upward sloping trend line indicating continued warming even though it is supposed to be a “pause”) and at each node I’ve written in the rank order of the year for the instrumental record. Note that tied years share a number. Basically, this period of “hiatus” is a very very warm period indeed, with temperatures trending upward during the entire period, looking only at the earth’s surface. (Elsewhere we’ve discussed how there is also heat going into the oceans. See links below.)
Since the climate science denialists have chosen a period of time of 16 years to describe a so-called “hiatus” which is not really a hiatus, I thought it would be fun to chunk out the data for the entire time period into 16 year intervals, starting with the most recent and going back to 1886. When viewed using these time intervals, we see overall warming with the most recent years seeing accelerated warming. Have a look:
These are all first drafts and if I get reasonable suggestions I may make new versions with corrections, additions, etc.
Surface temperatures are only one way to measure global warming, but it is a sort of standard and it is meaningful because surface temperatures have a lot to so with weather and such. Data for NASA’s GLOBAL Land-Ocean Temperature Index in 0.01 degrees Celsius using a base period of 1951-1980 can be found HERE. Climate Communicator ThingsBreak put a graph on the internet based on those data for November. Here’s a copy of it:
Earth’s surface temperature in °C for each November since 1880 (compared to base period, 1951-1980). Stefan Rahmstorf, creator of the graphic, used the SSAtrend smoother described in Moore, J. C., et al., 2005. New Tools for Analyzing Time Series Relationships and Trends. Eos. 86, 226,232. The filter half-width is 15 years. The results are similar to using LOESS or LOWESS. The raw data are, of course, in blue.
We call it “weather whiplash.” This is not just meteorologists being funny. It is a phenomenon that perhaps has always been with us to some degree, but that has recently become much more common, apparently. If you were under the impression that there is a lot of strange weather going on out there, you may be right, and weather whiplash may be the phenomenon you’ve noticed. Importantly, there is good reason to believe that weather whiplash is the result of anthropogenic global warming. In other words, it’s your fault, so please do pay attention.
Weather patterns tend to move latitudinally across the globe. You’ll get a period of no rain or snow for a while punctuated by precipitation, then the precipitation moves on and it is dry again for a while. The typical pattern of dry and precipitation in a given region changes by season, but if you compare one season to the next over several years there is normally a pattern. In some areas it is mostly wet with some dry, other areas mostly dry with some wet, other areas somewhere in between. The same can be said of cold vs. warm air masses.
Here in Minnesota, May and June tend to have repeated intense storm fronts moving through every few days for a few weeks, though the exact timing of when this stormy weather starts and ends, and how long it lasts, varies. Also, the nature of the storms varies, with some years having many tornadoes, some years having mostly straight line winds, etc. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, I get the impression that August is usually relatively dry and cool. Many Minnesotans who have cabins way up north regard August as the first month of fall, that’s how cool it is. Where you live there is a pattern, and you’ve probably noticed it.
Weather whiplash is when this happens: Instead of periods of dry and wet alternating as they normally do, one of those two patterns (dry or wet) gets stuck in place for a period of time. I get the impression that dry periods, when they get stuck, get stuck for many days in a row, while wet periods get stuck for less time. The reason for that may be this: The dry air masses that get stuck are larger because high pressure systems are big and tend to be dry, while wet weather systems are smaller. So, if all the weather got stuck all at once in the northern temperate region, more landscape would be under dry, clear skies and less landscape would be under wet, cloudy skies.
And of course, a gentle fluctuation back and forth between warmer and colder conditions is replaced, under weather whiplash conditions, with long periods of cooler or long periods of warmer weather.
Here’s the problem. If the weather is warm-cool-warm-cool over a periods of two weeks, it never gets that warm or cool. But if it is just warm-warm-warm-warm over a period of two weeks, that’s a heat wave. The heat builds and it gets warmer and warmer and warmer until it is just plain stinking hot. Or, conversely, if the weather is cool-cool-cool-cool and that happens mid winter, that’s a cold snap. Or, like happened this year in Minnesota, it can get cool-cool-cool-cool just at the time we should be having some spring rains, so instead we get spring snows for a month. Residents of the Twin Cities feel the pain of this even now, because the entire construction season (we have two season here, “Winter” and “Construction”) was delayed by a month due to weather whiplash, and the Minnesota Department of Public Works and county and local DPW’s have been working extra hard at ruining our commute today so that our commute can be better at some unspecified time in the future, right after the pigs start flying.
If the weather patterns sit in one place for a long time and cold or heat or dry or rain builds up … so you get a cold snap, heat wave, drought, or floods … then one part of weather whiplash is in effect. Then, the weather shifts and where there was once hot and dry, and thus maybe fires that denude the landscape, you have floods, made worse not only because of the stalled system but also because the fires prepped the grounds for greater runoff, erosion, and land slides. That’s the full weather whiplash pattern. Seemingly interminable weather of one kind suddenly replaced by seemingly interminable weather of another, perhaps opposite kind. Snap.
Farmers have to put their crops in late because of a long period of cool and wet conditions. Then the weather clears and everything is nice and dry, so the farmers plant later than ideal, but at least they get to plant. But then the nice and dry conditions are like the proverbial TV in-laws and never seem to want to leave, and good planting conditions turn into a worrying period of not enough rain and that turns into a moderate drought, and that turns into a severe drought. Then, just as you are about to harvest the half dead corn and maybe use it for halloween decorations because it is not good for anything else, the weather whiplashes on you again and your half dead crops are mowed down by a series of hail storms. This is not good for farmers.
Weather whiplash does seem to be a recent phenomenon, even if stalled systems can actually happen at any time. I think this is true because people like Paul Douglas seem to think it is true, people who have been watching the weather every day for years. It is hard to find a simple comprehensive set of data that demonstrates this, however. One way to look at this is to examine the frequency of “natural disasters” of various types over time, according to the people who know most about such things: the insurance industry. Following is a graph just for the US. I assume that weather whiplash is a global Northern Hemisphere phenomenon (maybe also Southern Hemisphere, but for various reasons maybe not; see below). I also assume that while the United States, being fairly large, is thus a good sample of the Northern Hemisphere, weather whiplash might be happening more in Eurasia one year and more in the US another year. However, there is reason to believe that that would not be the case to any large degree because the jet stream waviness is a global thing. Anyway, here’s a data set in the form of a chart from the insurance industry showing natural disasters in the US from 1980 to 2011. It is from this document (PDF).
Clearly there is an increase in the overall number of disasters. Climatological events including extreme temperature, drought, and forest fires increase across the time period of consideration. Floods and mass movement of water also clearly increases across this time period. Storms also increase. Geophysical events on the other hand, don’t. This is, of course, what we would expect if weather related events were having more of an impact. Is this weather whiplash?
One could argue that global warming would increase extreme temperature conditions and drought without anything special like weather whiplash happening. Also, global warming can increase rain and flood related problems because warmer air and seas means more evaporation. And, certainly, that is what has occurred over time.
And this is a very important point that I keep telling people but I’m not sure how well it has gotten across. Adding heat to the atmosphere may add moisture, and it may add drying conditions as well. It might increase storminess, or the intensity of some storms. But that is just a quantitative change in the weather, caused by global warming, and while important it is still a simple matter of degree.
Weather whiplash is not a quantitative change in weather patterns. It is not just a bit more rain or a bit more heat in what might otherwise be a rainy day or a hot day. Weather whiplash is a qualitative change in the patterns of weather. Qualitative, large scale features of climate (and weather) give us things like desserts and rain forests. They give us seasonal patterns. They give us expectations of a wet spring that gets dry enough to plant, enough rain falling in small enough bouts to keep the crops growing over the summer, and a reasonably dry fall so the harvesting machinery can get out in the fields and bring in the sheaves. Or, if there is a qualitative shift in the climate and weather, like weather whiplash becoming a common phenomenon, it might be that you can’t really grow corn where you were thinking you could, or if so, you need a different approach. And since all we eat and grow is corn, we are in big trouble. It might mean that the idea of living in excessively quaint villages next to medium size creeks in very large mountains is simply not an option any more, because “1,000 year floods” can happen any time if weather whiplash happens to aim its cruel cat-o-nine-tails at your quaintness.
The qualitatively distinct phenomenon of weather whiplash … the multi-day or even multi-week long stalling of weather patterns … builds on incremental increases in dryness of air (due to heat) and increased wetness of other air (due to increased evaporation) and increased storms (due to increased energy in the atmosphere) and make all that worse.
Imagine you have the habit of tossing the daily accumulation of spare change that forms in your pockets in random locations around your house at the end of each day. Then, something changes in your pattern of behavior and you end up coming home with more change every day (the price of something you frequently buy goes from 95 cents to $1.05, and you only pay with dollar bills). You still toss the change randomly, but now there is somewhat more spare change on your nightstand, on the table by the front door, in that basket on the desk in your study, in the laundry room. That’s a quantitative increase in spare change due to a change in the nature of making change during the day. It could matter, you might notice it, it may suddenly become worth it for the teenager in your household to volunteer to help clean the house if they can keep all the change. But it is just a matter of degree.
But what if you ALSO change what you do with the change. Instead of randomly dropping the change in a large number of locations, you change your pattern and most of the time you empty most of the change from most of your pockets into the single basket on your desk in the study. In short order you would have a lot of change in one place not only because you are accumulating more every day but also, and really, mainly, because you are putting it all in one place. Soon there would be many dollars worth of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies in your basket, enough to take to the bank. Now, THAT’s change we can believe in!
Weather whiplash on top of increased moisture in the air brought us drought and fire followed by unprecedented rainfall in Colorado just a couple of weeks ago. It flooded Central Europe and Calgary, Alberta. It brought killer cold and heat waves to Eurasia and North America over the last couple of years. It blocked Hurricane Super-Franken-Storm Sandy and steered it into New York and New Jersey about a year ago. It brought a “Flash Drought” to the US midwest this summer. And so on and so forth.
That, dear reader, is change we better believe in.
OK, but how does weather whiplash happen? I’ve explained this before (here) but I’ll give you a quick run down now in case you are to lazy to click on that link.
There are mysterious processes at work. They are not mysterious to climate scientists who can do calculus, of course, but they are a little hard to explain in a straight forward process without using analogies that ultimately break down. But I’l use a couple of analogies anyway. Feel free to complain about them in the comments, or offer better ones!
First, this: Climate is all about excess heat moving from the equatorial regions to the poles. When it does so across the troposphere, big-giant patterns of air movement are set up. These patterns can be thought of as giant twisting donuts of air encircling the earth (though that is only a rough description, on a simpler planet it would be very accurate). Air at the equator rises, moves away from the equator and cools, then sink, and works its way back towards the equator. Then, the next donut in line does same thing but twisting in a different direction. And so on. In cross section, it looks like this:
The junctions between these giant twisting donuts, at altitude, are the jet streams.
Weather generally moves along and within these donuts, nudged along and otherwise affected by the jet streams, in the manner described at the beginning of this post. Dry-wet-dry-wet or cool-warm-cool-warm, at the scale of days. Or, should I say, this regular pattern of normal variation happens as long as the jet streams are straight and all normal and stuff.
Here’s a depiction of the jet streams being fairly normal (from here):
But it does not always work that way. Visualize a straight river with a flat gravel bottom moving along at a reasonable clip in front of you. Observe the hibiscus flowers released by plants upstream (as happens in some tropical rivers) floating by each in a regular linear pattern. The river is a giant twisting donut, the hibiscus flowers are weather events. Now, drop a big log halfway across the river so one end is on the bank, and the other end is out in the middle of the river and pointing slightly upstream. Now, the water is partly trapped, and forms a vortex upstream from the log, and also, a vortex going perhaps in the opposite direction forms downstream from the log. The hibiscus flowers trapped in the vortex now fail to float by, but rather, spin and spin and spin and remain in the same place. Dozens of these flowers might get trapped in place, and beneath the surface, even the gravel is starting to mound up under parts of the stream that are moving slower, and dug out in other parts. Where that vortex occurs, above the log, will be many hibiscus flowers, or, rain storms, over a period of time. Perhaps below the log there will then be a paucity of hibiscus flowers, or, drought, for a period of time. Eventually the log gets lose, rolls downstream a ways, and gets stuck again. Then, some other part of the river … some other region … gets to experience the stuck vortex.
When the gradient in heat between the tropics and the poles is at a certain level, you get a nice straight jet stream most of the time. When the gradient drops, for complex reasons involving calculus and such, the whole donut-jet stream thing gets all messed up like the river with the log dropped across it, and the jet streams fold up in to these big curves called “Rossby waves.”
Over the recent years, we have experienced general global warming, and this has caused the sea ice that covers much of the Arctic Sea to melt more in the summer than it usually does. This has caused the whole northern region to become warmer because there is less reflective ice and more open ocean to collect sunlight. This has caused even more melting of the ice, and over the last decade we’ve seen a catastrophic reduction in sumer arctic ice that, while it was expected that this would happen over time, has occurred at a shocking rate of speed that has kinda freaked everybody out. This warming of the Arctic in relation to everywhere else is called “Arctic Amplification.” Arctic amplification has caused the differential of equatorial vs. polar temperature to shift, and this has caused the Rossby waves to form.
The waves themselves don’t move at all or move only very slowly for several days, and form vortex patterns to their north (which are low pressure systems) and to their south (which are high pressure systems). The air moving along the jet stream itself also slows down. So, any wether pattern that might just float by like a hibiscus flower on a tropical river instead sits here and either rains on you for a week or shines bright sun on you for a week, or whatever. Then, the waves move or disappear and reform elsewhere, like the log getting lose and rolling down stream for a ways, and the place that was for several days dry is now for several days wet.
So, is there any evidence that weather whiplash has been happening more frequently in recent years other than so many meteorologists simply claiming it has?
I asked a number of colleagues who work with climate and weather if there was a readily available database showing jet stream waviness and big storm events that could be converted into a human-understandable picture, or graph, or something, of this change over time. I had already read two recent papers that looked at this phenomenon but they are highly technical and on their own don’t have graphics that do the job. So, I asked one of the authors of one of those papers about a quick little trick (OMG HE USED THE WORD TRICK IN RELATION TO CLIMATE) to convert one of their more complicate graphs into something more obvious. Below, I provide you with the original graphic and the one I generated from it. This shows the frequency over time in a limited size study area (not the whole Northern Hemisphere) of conditions under which Rossby waves would cause weather whiplash conditions. Remember, this is just a sample of the planet in both time and space, not the actual number of times this happens. But, the sampling is uniform over several decades, so if there is an increasing trend of jet-stream curviness at the level that could cause wether whiplash, it will be shown, more or less, here. The numbers are so small that I don’t even attempt a test of significance. This is provisional. Suggesting. For fun. If one can call the outcome of weather whiplash fun, which you really cant. Anyway, check out these two items:
…and, from this figure, I created the following graphic, counting the number of QR events (the squares) per unit time evenly divided across the sampling period:
Here’s the thing. We can’t easily say that there is a qualitatively new climate system in place, because by definition “climate” is what happens over 30 years of time. There is no “new climate” that is five or ten years old. That, however, is not because of a natural process. It is because of how climate science has evolved. It makes sense for climate scientists to think in multi-decade chunks of time because climate really does vary at levels less than 20 or 30 years time, normally. Taking a normal climate science perspective, we can be pretty sure that “weather warming” is a new climate regime some time around the middle of the 21st century when there is enough data!
But this is a problem. If the situation is changing rapidly enough it will be hard for methods that have evolved in climatology to respond to, or even, really, “see” it. Trying to understand weather whiplash by long term study of the climate system is a bit like using the publicly available long term FBI crime stats that were last updated two years ago to assess whether or not your house is being broken into right now.
As you know, the IPCC report on the scientific evidence related to climate change is coming out just now. That report is not so sure about changes in weather severity or storminess or stuff like weather whiplash. Some weather changes are acknolwedged as very likely, others, the IPCC report is much more equivocal about. However, there are very few people in climate science right now that don’t think something like weather whiplash is probably happening, and many are well convinced of it. The problem is that the IPCC reporting process is more like climate than weather in its temporal scale!
The IPCC reporting process has a time lag of several years; the final, most policy related report for this cycle will be out in some 12 months from now, a year after the first report in the cycle, the one with the science in it. In a few years from now, and not likely before, there will be important people sitting in important room in important buildings talking about climate. Someone will say “is drought a thing?” and someone else will say “IPCC says they are only moderately sure at best that drought is a thing.” It won’t matter that the conversation is happening in July 2015 and the last piece of data in the IPCC report is from 2011 and drought has been a dominant result of weather whiplash for five years … enough time to overlap with but not influence the IPCC conclusions.
Weather whiplash is almost certainly for real.
Finally, here are two videos that also go into this topic. From the Yale Climate Forum, “New video couples interviews with two experts — Rutgers’ Jennifer Francis and Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters — to explore the ‘Why?’ of two years of mirror images of weather across North America”
…and “”Wummer.” Just days ago, it looked and felt like winter in many cities across the the Midwest. Then whammo, it’s summer with record breaking heat across several Midwest states. Yes, double digit snowfalls to triple digit heat all within a matter of days. Meteorologist Paul Douglas says this takes Weather Whiplash to a whole new level.”
Recently, formerly respected writer Matt Ridley has been making a fool of himself with absurd and scientifically unsupported commentary on climate change. Recently he wrote something for the Wall Street Journal, “Dialing Back the Alarm on Climate Change,” that serves as an example of this.
Professor John Abraham has also provided an item for the Wall Street Journal that addresses Ridley’s goof. As Abraham puts it, “Matt Ridley states that a forthcoming major climate change report will lower the expected temperature rise we will experience in the future (“A Reprieve From Climate Doom,” Review, Sept. 14). He also claims that the temperature rise will be beneficial. I was an expert reviewer of the report.”
It has been said that global warming has stopped over the last several years. Some say it has not been happening for 17 years, some say for ten years, some say for 12 years. Let’s test these hypotheses
Hypothesis: June, the most recent month with full data, was an average year, not a warm year.
Now that July is nearly over, we can look back at the data for June and see how warm or cool June was.
According to data from NOAA and NASA, summarized here,
June was one of the hottest such months on record globally…The month extended the unbroken string of warmer-than-average months to 340, or a stretch of more than 28 years. That means that no one under the age of 28 has ever experienced a month in which global average temperatures were cooler than average (based on the 20th century average)….Last month featured unusually wet conditions in the eastern U.S., and tragically wet conditions in northwest India, where rainfall that was 200 percent of average inundated parts of the state of Uttarakhand, killing nearly 6,000 and causing widespread destruction. Areas that experienced higher-than-average temperatures during the month include north-central Canada, most of Alaska — which had its third-warmest June on record — and the Western U.S., where about 80 percent of the region was in some stage of drought by the end of the month.
Well, OK, so when we look at June we have to reject the hypothesis. But what about the entire year, so far, from January to June? If global warming has stopped, this should be an average year, right?
Hypothesis: Global warming has stopped, therefore this year is not warm.
Again, from NOAA and NASA, there is evidence that this year so far is the seventh warmest year on record so far. So, if this year is average for the last 14 years, than the last 14 years including this one are very, very warm. Sounds like global warming. However, the jury is still out on this one. There is evidence that certain climate effects that were keeping the atmosphere cooler than it otherwise might be are reversing or changing in a way that may make the rest of the year warmer. So, we are reasonably likely to rise from the 7th warmest year on record to a higher rank. But, in the meantime, here’s a nice graphic for you:
But what about the Arctic? I’ve heard tell the sea ice melting started out average this year. Therefore, global warming is not real.
Arctic ice melt is average this year
There is really good data for a period of some 30 years or so in the Arctic. The first ten years of that period had ice melting at a certain rate, and the last ten years of those data had more ice melting, such that none of the last ten years were as icy as any of the first ten years. That suggests a trend. Last year the ice melted even more than ever observed, continuing the trend. But early this year, the ice seemed to be tracking average for the last 30 years, so everything is fine!!!!
It is true that a very rapid increase of sea surface and atmospheric temperatures that happened a decade ago was much greater than the rate of increase in heat in these areas over the last ten years, but the earth is still warming. More importantly, the deep ocean seems to be heating at a higher rate, and since 97% of the sun’s extra heat goes into the ocean anyway, we expect the atmospheric temperatures to fluctuate more randomly.
Also, if you live in the US, this has been an exceptionally warm period. Interestingly, US based denialists are screaming about how “global warming has stopped” while at the same time atmospheric warming is catching up in the US where in the past it was not as severe in some other areas of the world.
So, in the end, the evidence that global warming has stopped is … lacking.