Tag Archives: storms

Earliest Tornado in Minnesota

It is now verified that the earliest 2017 tornados — first tornados of the season — struck several communities in east-central Minnesota (a few miles north and south of me). So what you say? Especially because it was a mere F1 and didn’t hurt anyone!

This is an important event because the earliest recorded tornado of the year in Minnesota was previously March 18th, and that was in 1968. This tornado, striking on March 6th (confirmed yesterday by the NWS) is way earlier than that!

One tornado, near Zimmerman went for nine miles.

A second tornado appears to have passed through the community of Clark’s Grove as well. That one may have been on the ground for over 12 miles.

Neither tornado was large, but there was a lot of damage to property and trees.

Needless to say, the frequency of storms in general, and their severity, are expected to rise with climate change. Part of that seems to be the lengthening of the storm seasons. More time, more storms.

The local reports:

Weather, Climate Change, and Related Matters in 2015

I had considered writing an accounting of all the outlandish weather events of 2015, but that project quickly became a tl:dr list of untoward happenings which is both alarming and a bit boring, since it is so long. So, I decided to generate something less comprehensive, focusing more on the context and meaning of the diverse and impressive set of outcomes of anthropogenic global warming, an historically strong El Niño, and, well, weather which is already a pretty whacky thing.

See: Highlights of Climate Change Research in 2015

It should be noted right away that 2015 is the last year in which any human alive will see CO2 levels dip below 400 parts per million.

What is the biggest single weather related news of 2015?

Floods, probably. Around the world, there were a lot of floods, and a lot of them were very damaging and deadly. Also, many of these floods appeared with little warning, even in places like Texas, where the meteorology is pretty good. Those Texas floods were of special note, as were the floods in the Carolinas. But outside the US there were major floods in Asia, especially Vietnam and Myanmar, as well as Yemen. Alaska, Oklahoma, Atacama in South America, also saw severe floods.

Why were there so many floods?

I’m pretty sure it is accurate to say that there was more flooding, and more severe flooding, than typical for, say, 20th century climatology. We had many 1,000 year flood events, too many to assume that these events remain as 1,000 year events.

See: Global Warming Changing Weather in the US Northeast

There are probably two or three reasons for increased flooding, which of course is caused by increased and concentrated rainfall along with other factors such as land use changes that cause rainfall to result in more flooding. One is the simple fact that a warmer atmosphere, due to global warming, contains more water, and thus, we get more rain. How much more? Not a lot, but enough to make a difference. If you put together a bunch of weather data and plot the annual precipitation rate over the last century or so, and fit a line to the data, the line will look flat. It isn’t really flat, and in fact, a properly fitted line on good data will show a statistically significant upslope. But still, the total amount of extra precipitation is a small percentage of the usual amount of precipitation, so the slope is not impressive unless you draw it out using heavy-handed graphing methods.

A few other places are doing end of year reviews. Inside Climate is doing a series of 2015 retrospectives. Skeptical Science has an overview of the year. Environmental health news has a wish list pivoting on 2015 and a year in review. And Then There’s Physics summarizes 2015. Critical Angle takes a critical look at 2015 here. If you see any more out there in the wild, let me know. Media Matters has “The 15 Most Ridiculous Things Conservative Media Said About Climate Change In 2015.” Media Matters also has 5 New Year’s Resolutions For Reporting On Climate Change. HotWhopper has The Fake Sceptic Awards for 2015 here.

A second factor is a set of changes in how, when, and where the rain falls. Normally, in the temperate regions, rain storms move along with trade winds, guided or influenced by jet streams, fairly quickly. But if the jet streams slow down, the storms slow down, so we may see 4 inches of rain fall in one place that normally would have been spread out over a larger area, never exceeding half (or less) of that amount in any given area. The jet streams have slowed down and also become curvier, which both increases the amount of rain that falls in a give area but also may transfer moisture from and to places that are normally not involved as much in such a process. For example, the storm we are expecting today in the upper Midwest and Plains is not a typical Canadian Clipper, but rather a Gulf Coast storm related to the deadly blizzards and tornado swarms we’ve seen over the last few days to the south.

See: Does global warming destroy your house in a flood?

This clumping of rain in smaller areas also means that other areas that would normally have received some rain don’t, causing what my colleague Paul Douglas refers to as “flash droughts.” These are dry periods that don’t last long enough, and are not severe enough, to register on any official drought-o-meter, but nonetheless stress local water systems (such as farming) enough to be a nuisance.

A third factor is sea surface temperature. This really relates to, and is probably one of the main causes, of the first factor (increased precip overall), and feeds into the second factor (clumping of rain) but deserves its own consideration. Elevated sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic off the US coast last winter caused a lot more moisture than normal to feed into nor’easter storms, which in turn have become more common (because of increased sea surface temperatures and other factors), thus dumping large quantities of snow in the US Northeast. The same thing dumped lots of extra snow in a region that normally gets very little snow, the US Southeast, the winter before.

See: A selection of books on climate change

These changes have been happening for decades, and are due to global warming. The warming caused by the human release of extra greenhouse gasses, and other human effects, increase the warmth, thus the evaporation, thus the precipitation. Part of this warming trend involved increasing the warmth of the Arctic at a much higher rate than most of the rest of the planet. This, in turn, seems to have caused the jet stream to become wavy and slow down. The jet streams and trade winds are ultimately caused and controlled by the Earth spinning, which has not changed, and the temperature differential between the warm equator and the cold poles, which has changed quite a bit.

See: Weather Whiplash Is Like My Old Broken Sprinkler

But what about El Niño?

Didn’t El Niño cause these changes, and thus, aren’t these weather events unrelated to global warming?

No, and for two reasons.

First, many of these events happened during the first half of the year, before the start of the current El Niño, which is in fact the strongest El Niño so far observed directly, and possibly the strongest El Niño in millennia.

The second reason is that the heat released by the El Niño (the release of heat stored in the Pacific Ocean is what an El Niño is, in functional terms) is added to an already warmed world. It may even be that the extra severity of this year’s El Niño is upscaled by anthropogenic global warming. In any event, any records we set during the current El Niño exceed earlier El Niño years because the El Niños we experience are shorter term warming events on top of a steadily increasing global warming phenomenon.

We had a lot of fires

Last year and this year, or really, the last few years, have seen excessive, above normal rates of forest and brush fires in various regions. We have seen major fires in Australia, North America, and Southeast Asia during this period, with North America breaking several recent records this year.

See: Forest fires in Indonesia choke much of south-east Asia

These fires are caused by a combination of factors, but ultimately heat increasing evaporation, prior rainy years increasing available fuel, and warm winters increasing tree death to parasites (thus increasing fuel), all have contributed.

North America, in the old days, had much more fire-heavy years than anything recent because we were busy cutting down the forest, piling up “slash” (left over tree parts) and running sparky old fashioned coal-driven railroad engines up and down between the slash piles, catching them on fire. In addition, just burning the slash on purpose contributed to the overall amount of fire, especially when the slash fires got out of control.

We also saw some pretty impressive fires a couple of decades ago because of what we now know were bad fire management practices, which had actually grown out of those earlier decades of logging related fires. In other words, the frequency and distribution of forest and brush fires is complex. During aridification, probably global warming related, in Africa during the 70s and 80s, vast areas started to burn more regularly than usual. In those days, I would fly at night over Libya, Chad and the Sudan a couple of times a year, and could observe the entire region was burning all the time, easily visible from 26,000 feet.

The bottom line: The frequency and extent of fires is variable and chaotic, but anthropogenic global warming seems to have contributed significantly to us having more of them.

Were there more storms in 2015?

Record breaking tropical storms occurred in 2015. All of the tropical cyclone/hurricane basins saw interesting activity, with the Atlantic being the most quiet, and the Eastern Pacific, possibly, being the strangest.

There were 22 Category 4 or 5 storms this year in the Northern Hemisphere, a record number. The last record year was recent, 2004. Studies have shown overall that the total energy that forms up in tropical cyclones has increased with global warming, though the actual total number of storms is highly variable.

It is reasonable to expect an increase in the frequency and severity of tropical storms with global warming, while at the same time, in some areas, smaller storms may become less common. This is partly because smaller storms are more readily abated by some of the global-warming related changes in weather systems such as increased wind shear and increased dust in the tropical atmosphere. At the same time, extremely high sea surface temperatures, and also, high water temperatures as depth (100–200 meters) increase the potential strength of storms that do get past that initial formation.

Hurricane Patricia, in the Eastern Pacific (landfall in Mexico) was an especially important storm. It was a physically small storm, but had more powerful winds than ever seen in a tropical storm. The storm went from nothing to a full hurricane in several hours (instead of several days).

The significance of this can not be underestimated. We have a situation where the conditions that might cause a hurricane to form are extreme, because of global warming (and this year, more so because of El Niño). So, when when these conditions are in place, a hurricane can form faster, and get more powerful, than normal. Consider the prospect of a land falling Category 5+ storm forming offshore from an area with low lying terrain (not like where Patricia struck land) with a high population density (not like where Patricia struck land) and moving on shore immediately. Like for instance, an Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico version of Patricia making landfall near Miami or NOLA.

Most of the really large hurricanes of this year were in the Pacific basin, distributed across the entire region, but Hurricane Joaquin, which was a very large and powerful storm in the Atlantic, did have us on the edge of our seats for a while when some of the better weather predicting models suggested it might make landfall. Also, nearly unprecedented tropical storms formed near the Arabian Pennensula.

This was a hot year

Other than February, which was merely hot rather than really hot, globally, every month so far this year has broken or nearly broken one or more records, depending on which database one uses. The running 12-month average of surface temperatures started to break records before El Niño kicked in, and continued to do so since. This will continue for several more months, even if the El Niño phenomenon itself stops soon, because it takes several months for surface temperatures to show the El Niño effect.

More specifically, there were killer heat waves in the Western Cape of South Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Australia recorded its hottest day ever. North America experienced numerous record breaking days, in the US and Canada. Cherry trees thought it was spring and bloomed last week in Washington. I saw birds building a nest outside my house in Minnesota two weeks ago, and our lawn was green(ish) through last weekend.

Ocean Oddness and Other Events

Let us not forget the Great Blob of Hot Water in the northern Pacific. This non El Niño phenomenon, which has been going for a couple of years no, has had El Niño like effects in the region, and probably relates to the non normal weather in along the western coast of North America, including record breaking heat in Alaska, major storms in or near Alaska, and of course, the California Drought.

A Haboob-Nado in China involved some of the strongest winds ever seen in the region, and may have, very unusually, contained an embedded tornado. We had a mild tornado season in the US, in Tornado Alley, until a few days ago when a not-very-seasonal tornado season sprung up and killed close to 50 people in just a few days. The American southeast does get winter tornadoes, but Michigan does not. But this year, there was a first ever recorded December tornado in that state.

The Arctic Sea ice has been diminishing in its minimum extent for a few decades now, and this year we saw the third lowest amount. The volume of Arctic sea ice continues to shrink.

You all know about the Syrian Refugee crisis. This is the latest chapter in the collapse of the Syrian state, which in turn happened because of long term drought in that country killing off the agricultural system and forcing farmers into the cities, where many became involved in the Syrian Civil War, which opened up the opportunity for the Islamic State to take a large amount of territory in the region. And so on. The Syrian refugee crisis is likely to be an early version of more of the same to come over future decades. And, I quickly point out, this is not likely to have been the first climate refugee situation, just much worse than prior events related to the spread of deserts in North Africa and drying out in West Asia.

Research on Climate Change

This year saw some interesting research in climate change.

One team studies major oscillations in climate that relate to oceans (of which El Niño is a shorter-term smaller part). This research suggests that the last couple of decades have seen less warming than we might expect over the long term, and further suggests that an uptick in the rate of warming is in our medium term future.

Related research also shows that accelerated melting of northern glaciers, especially Greenland, could alter Atlantic currents, so while the Earth generally warms due to increased greenhouse gasses, weather may change to a colder regime in Europe, some time over the next few dedades.

We are seeing an increased rate at which climate and weather experts are attributing bad weather to global warming. This is partly a shift in thinking and methods among the experts, and partly because of an actual increase in such events.

There has been interesting research in the Antarctic. We are seeing increased concern about, and evidence for, destabilization of huge inland glaciers that could start to fall apart and contribute to sea level rise at any time in the next several years. At the same time we saw one study that seemed to suggest that Antarctic is gaining ice, rather than losing it. If that is true, than recent decades of sea level rise are partly unexplained. Alternatively, the research, which has some known flaws, may simply be wrong. Look for some interesting results related to Antarctic glacier during 2016.

The famous #FauxPause in global warming, claimed by many climate change deniers to be a real thing (no warming in X years, etc.) was already known to be Faux, but this year saw several independent nails being driven into that coffin. Rather than a pause that disproves global warming, we have a better understood series of changed in the long term warming in the planet’s surface temperature.

See: In a blind test, economists reject the notion of a global warming pause

Sea floor biotic diversity was shown to be threatened by warming, coral bleaching is more likely and in fact happening at a higher rate, and probably mostly due to El Niño, there has been some odd ocean animal migrations.

The planting zones, the gardening and agricultural zones we use to decide which crops to plant and when, have over the last several years shifted in most places in North America by one or two zones. This year, the people who make the zone maps came out with a new one.

Sea levels continue to rise, and the rate of rise is rising. Rare nuisance flooding in coastal areas, most famously but not only Miami, have become regular events. Sales in waterproof shoes are expected to increase.

Communication and Politics

Across meteorology we see the graph and chart makers scrambling to find new colors for their maps showing heat. Y-axes are being stretched everywhere. We seem to be stuck with a five level category system for tropical cyclones/hurricanes, but we are seeing so many storms that are way stronger, bigger, more destructive than earlier Category 5 storms that talk of adding a category is no longer being responded to with angry mobs of pitchfork wielding weather forecasters who came of age with the older system.

See: How to not look like an idiot

There has been a great deal of significant climate change related activism, and COP happened, with a strong message to address the human causes of climate change sooner than later. Climate change has actually become an issue in US elections. For the first time a major world leader, President Obama, has faced off with the deniers and told them to STFU. Major news outlets such as the Washington Post and the Guardian have started to take climate change seriously. The idea that reporters must give equal weight to the “two sides of the story” (science is real, vs. science is not real) is disappearing.

Denial of climate change and climate change science reached its high water mark over the last 12 months. It will now fade away.

And that is a short and incomplete summary of weather and climate in 2015.

A note for my regular readers: Yes, I chose the burning Earth graphic to annoy the denialist. Check the comments below to see if that annoyed anyone.

Global Warming: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Ice

Focusing on Earth, but also a few tidbits on wind, fire, and ice, some current news and observations about global warming.


As humans release greenhouse gas pollutants (mainly CO2) into the atmosphere, the surface of the Earth, and the top 2000 meters of the ocean, heat up. But some of the CO2 is absorbed into plant tissues and soil, as well as in the ocean or other standing water. Historically, about 30% of the extra CO2 is absorbed into the ocean, and another 30% converted into (mainly) plant tissue. We hope that enough CO2 is absorbed that the effects of greenhouse gas pollution is attenuated, at least a little. Unfortunately, there are two things that can go wrong. First, these “Carbon sinks” — places where the CO2 is either stored or converted into Carbon-based tissue, could stop working. Second, some of these Carbon sinks could reverse course and start releasing, rather than absorbing, Carbon.

The CO2 released in the atmosphere during any given time period starts a process of warming that takes years to finish. We know how much CO2 we have added to the atmosphere (we went from the mid 200’s ppm, parts per million, before this all started to 400ppm). We know how much we are currently releasing and we can estimate how much we will be releasing in coming years. Putting this all together with some very fancy physics and math, we can estimate the amount of surface warming over coming years. This calculation includes the Carbon sinks. If the Carbon sinks stop sinking Carbon, or worse, start releasing previously trapped Carbon, then future warming (next year, next decade, over the next century) will be greater than previously expected.

And there is now evidence that this is happening.

Andy Skuce has written up two pieces, here and here, that explain this. It is also written up here, and the original research is here.

This research suggests that some natural Carbon sinks are slowing down in the amount of Carbon they take in, or perhaps switching to releasing Carbon.

The problem is actually very simple to understand. In order for CO2 to be converted to O2 (free oxygen) and some combination of C and other elements (to make plant tissue), the other elements have to be available in sufficient quantity. For many terrestrial ecosystems, CO2 was a limiting factor (keeping water and sunlight out of the picture or constant). So, adding CO2 means more plant growth. But at some point, the other elements that are required to make plant tissue, such as Nitrogen and Phosphorous (otherwise known as fertilizer) are insufficient in abundance to allow plants to use that CO2. This would reduce or flatten out the amount of extra CO2 that can be trapped in solid form. At this point, the terrestrial biomass starts to release, rather than absorb, CO2.

Why would the terrestrial Carbon sink not simply stop absorbing Carbon, and start to release it? Well, because I as fibbing a little when I said this is simple. The more realistic version of the system has Carbon going in and out of the different parts of the system (atmosphere, ocean water, plant tissue, etc.). With warming temperatures, we expect the release of Carbon from terrestrial systems to increase in rate. So, before nutrient limitation is released, there is Carbon going in and Carbon going out, but on average, mostly going in. With Nutrient limitation on the system, when there isn’t enough Nitrogen or Phosphorus to match up with the CO2, the release continues while the absorption stops. But because of warming, the release not only continues, but increases. So, in coming decades, the net effect is that parts of the terrestrial ecosystem contributes to atmospheric CO2.

At present, climate scientists (mainly in the context of the IPCC) have estimates of future warming that involve estimates of how much CO2 we add to the atmosphere. All the known factors have been taken into account, including the Carbon cycle (which includes Carbon moving between the atmosphere, the ocean, and the plant and soil system at the surface. This research indicates that the numbers have to be changed to account for nutrient saturation.

This graph shows how it works. The black line is the increase in plant growth as originally modeled under a “high-emissions” scenario. This shows a 63% increase in plant growth by the end of the century owing to CO2 fertilization. The red line indicates the amount of extra plant growth that would actually happen due to limitations of Nitrogen. The blue lie indicates the amount of plant growth due to the limitation of Phosphorus. These are 29% and 20%, respectively.


If we include the increase in release of Carbon due to warming conditions (basically, more and faster rotting of dead plant tissue), the existing models produce the black line in the graph below. There is still an increase in plant growth, and the plant-based Carbon sink is still working. If limitations on nitrogen and phosphorus are considered, we get the red and blue lines.


This amounts, approximately, to adding about 14 years of human greenhouse gas pollution (at the current rate) to the time period under consideration (from now to 2100).

So that’s the news when it comes to climate change and the Earth. But what about the wind?


No new research here, just an observation. Where does wind really matter? Where do you really feel the wind? Wind is the expression of the large scale climate system (modified by local conditions) which is in turn the result of the spinning of the Earth and the heating of the planet unevenly by the sun, like it does. A valid rule of thumb is more heat, more wind, but that is a gross oversimplification. At a more complex level, more heat equals more wind doing different things in different places than usual, and also more water vapor in the air, and all this has to do with those times and places where we really feel the wind the most: Storms.

Tenney Naumer (of Climate Change: The Next Generation fame) came across an amazing graphic of the Earth, looking mainly at the Pacific, showing some wind.


The graphic is from here, and I added the “Storm World” just for fun. Except it isn’t really fun. The date of this graphic is, I think, July 5th or 6th.

Your homework assignment is to identify the named tropical storms shown in the graphic.


A few years ago there were some big fires. Australia burned, there were fires in California, Texas, Arizona, various parts of Canada, etc. Climate change and fire experts noted that there is an increase in fires because of global warming, but others argued that there was no significant increase, and we had had periods of abundant fires in the past. In truth, there was evidence of an increase, though maybe not very convincing to some. Also, past inclement conditions are a thing … recent global warming did not invent bad weather or extensive wildfires. But some of those past periods, like the 1930s in the US, are not evidence against current climate change, but rather, evidence of what to expect with climate change. Those periods are only barely as severe as the present state, are usually regional and not global, happened after greenhouse gas pollution was very much a thing and between periods of suppression of warming by aerosols (from volcanoes or industrial pollution). So they matter, but not because they disprove climate change (they don’t) but rather because these past events are windows into the future. But I digress.

The point is, a few years ago, those who are rightfully alarmed about climate change were pointing out the problem of increased wild fires referring mainly to research indicating a dramatic increase in wildfire potential, along with some evidence of actual increased wildfires. And others argued that until there were a lot more flames, there was not a problem.

Well, now we have the flames.

Yesterday (anecdote warning, this is not data) I went outside to check the mail and was assailed by a bank of smoke moving through my neighborhood. It smelled really bad. Assuming there was a house on fire, I dashed back into the house to grab my cell phone, in case I had to dial 911. Returning outside, I walked around and did not see anything obvious burning, but the smoke was coming in from the north. That ruled out a burning oil tank train (the tracks are from the south) and the local munitions dump on fire (that is to the west). But I still couldn’t see where the smoke was coming from. So, I hopped in the car and drove north a couple of blocks, and by the time I got to the nearby Interstate, it became clear that the smoke was simply everywhere, pretty uniformly.

I then guessed at the cause, and returned to my computer where I checked the Wundermap and some other sources. Yup: it was Canada and Alaska, thousands of miles away, pretty much on fire. Here are two graphics to illustrate this.

From the Wundermap:

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And from here:

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Glacial ice is melting, and it is melting faster every year. Earlier in the year we learned that Alaska (on fire, see above) has been losing mountain glacier and ice sheet water at an alarming rate. Now, we are seeing an amazing spike in melting on the surface of Greenland. From here:


The graph is of ice melt extent so far this year. The blue dotted line is the average over recent decades as in dicated. The grey area is 2 standard deviations around that average. The vast majority of observations (nearly 100%) would be in that grey area. The red line is this year. This is what you call unprecedented melting.

Why is this melting happening? Because Greenland is unusually warm, but as expected under global warming. Some of this melted ice will refreeze in the winter. Much of it, however, is going into the sea.

AGW Class Cyclone Pam Nearing Vanuatu

Pam is a tropical cyclone of category 5 strength, but is churning over waters that have high temperatures at depth, a phenomenon we seem to be seeing more often lately, as a result of anthropogenic global warming. That is why I call it “AGW Class.” Strong Category 5, deep heat enhanced. It is said that this is one of only 10 Category 5 storms recorded in the basin since good data are available. The Weather Underground has the story.

In addition, there are three other tropical cyclones extant in the Pacific.

Nathan is just on the Tropical Storm-Hurricane boundary and is heading for Cape York, Australia. Olwyn is a fully formed tropical cyclone (hurricane) with sustained winds at 85mph, and is busy menacing the west coast of Australia, which it will scrape over the next several hours, reaching Sharks Bay very soon and passing off the southwest corner of OZ over the weekend. But since that is so many time zones away we really have no idea when any of this will happen. Bavi is a tropical storm out in the Pacific heading roughly west by northwest. This storm may reach hurricane strength in a few day, but the forecast I saw is very uncertain.

And yes, there are views of the Earth that allow you to see all four storms at once. Here is one from the Climate Reanalyzer. The storms are marked but you should be able to spot them:


This one, that I got of Twitter, has the storms marked:


You don’t see this every day.

Minnesota's Current Weather Disaster — Don't worry we'll be fine.

I woke up this morning to find about a dozen reports on my iPad Damage app indicating trees down and hail damage in many communities from Mankato to Edina, south of the Twin Cities. More of the same. We have been having severe weather for about a month now, or a bit less. One day in late May, Julia and I were taking pictures of people driving too fast through the lake that formed in front of our house form a major downpour. Early in that storm we witnessed a ground strike not too far away. A short while after that an ambulance came screaming by our house, coming from the direction of the ground strike to the hospital just south of us. Later we heard on the news that a woman at a little league game (which, frankly, should have been cancelled) was struck and transported to the hospital … that was certainly her. This morning, Mankato was flooded, a day or two ago a woman was rescued from her car that was eventually swept away by a river that does not normally exist. Flooding up on the Canadian Border has been epic. The entire state is under a Meteorological Siege.

Not exactly a Turn Round Don't Drown situation, but perhaps a Slow Down So As To Not Crack Your Engine Block situation .
Not exactly a Turn Round Don’t Drown situation, but perhaps a Slow Down So As To Not Crack Your Engine Block situation .
Yet, somehow, CNN has not taken notice.

I believe that what is happening here is an expanded, intensified version of what we usually get around this time of year. The Norther Plains has storms in the late Spring and early Summer for various meteorological reasons. But this Spring, the jet stream continues to experience it’s kinkyness, not the good kind of kinkyness, and we are having stalled weather systems. So, instead of having a storm front move through the area every few days, we have a big huge stormy thing hanging over us for weeks on end.

This is a similar phenomenon, most likely, to what brought epic floods to Central Europe, the UK, Calgary, and Colorado over the last two years. But, since we have no mountains to speak of and the state is full of more swamp and pond than arroyo and river, we don’t have the same kind of result. The rain that fell over the last 24 hours in southern Minnesota, falling in Colorado’s front range would have wiped out towns and people would be missing for days. Here, we have different results. Same weather phenomenon (more or less) likely caused by the same changes to the environment resulting form global warming (most likely) but spread out a bit in time and space so it becomes, rather than a single big huge national news story, this string of little local news stories (listed by day of month for June):

The interaction between the nature of events and the nature of news journalism certainly is interesting. We couldn’t stay out of the news when the Polar Vortex was visiting. Now, we are being ignored in all our glorious wetness. That is reasonable … so far this weather has not caused the death and destruction of epic flooding in mountain areas, and we are lucky that we’ve not had significant tornadoes here – the twisters are staying to the south of us, just. But it is interesting that we suffer the weather of countless tiny drops Minnesota style. In silence. With the occasional stern look. We will be making some hot dish now, out of season, but it is our comfort food. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.


Here’s a few tweeted pics from the NWS Twin Cities:

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Why Global Warming’s Effects Will Be Worse Than You Were Thinking

The story of climate change has always been more of worst-case, or at least, worser-case scenarios developing and less about good news showing up out of nowhere and making us unexpectedly happy.

A few decades ago, it became clear that the release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere primarily as CO2 was going to cause a greenhouse effect (yes, dear reader, we’ve known this for looooong time … the idea that this is a recent and still untested idea is a lie you’ve been fed so many times some of you may have begun to believe it). At that time climate scientists thought, reasonably, that there would be a diverse set of responses to the increase in CO2 and/or the increase in heat, some of which would accentuate the effects (positive feedback) and others would reduce the effects (negative feedback). Over time, the list of possible ameliorating effects became shorter and shorter and eventually pretty much disappeared. There is no double secret save-our-butts-at-the-last-minute Carbon “sink” nor is there any natural response that would cause cooling to somehow be caused by warming. Meanwhile, the list of accentuating effects has grown. Melting permafrost releases copious green house gasses. Melting sea ice in the Arctic allows the Arctic Sea to warm even more. Global warming-caused aridity causes numerous fires which coat the Greenland ice with soot, causing it to melt faster and do less of the work of reflecting sunlight back into space. And so on and so forth.

For these reasons, several years go you’d have climate scientists saying “well, this is important, and change is coming, but there’s good news and bad news” and then the good news all went away and the bad news all stuck around, and every now and then, a new bad news item not previously thought of came along and lengthened that list. So already, climate change is worse than we thought.

Then we have the problem of scary empirical reality.

The Ghost of the Eemian

One of the most significant negative effects of global warming is likely to be sea level rise. Sea level rise so far has been significant, measurable, and important, but not large. As the earth warms because of increased levels of greenhouse gasses, the temperature of the ocean has increased, and this has caused the water in the ocean to expand, raising the level of the sea. At the same time, glaciers have been melting all across the planet, adding additional water to the sea, causing additional sea level rise.

So you can see that there is a link between temperature and sea level rise. More heat, more sea level rise. But there’s a problem with this model. Based on prior experience, it seems that our planet normally responds to heat like we are experiencing now with a much higher sea level. During the Eemian period, the last time conditions were similar to the present, sea level was about 5 to 7 meters higher than now. In other words, given an admittedly small sample of 2 instances, when global temperatures are roughly like they are now, sea level can be anywhere between their current levels and 7 meters higher than current levels.

This is not the kind of relationship between important variables that allows us to say that sea levels are going to go down, or stay at their current level, or rise very slowly. These are the kinds of numbers that tell us that we really don’t know what is going to happen over the next few decades, but that the chance that sea level will drop is zero, and the chance that sea level will rise only a little is slim, and the chance that sea level will rise quickly and a great deal at some point in time, or in a few spurts, is pretty good.

Predicting genocide using information about voting patterns

Which brings us to more details about the problem of sea level. Sea levels will rise the most not because of warming oceans but because of glaciers … whopping big continental glaciers … falling apart and slipping into the sea, or melting very rapidly and sending copious meltwater into the sea. Everything we know about the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers seems to indicate that at least some of this is going to involve large events, where big parts of big glaciers slide into the sea, rather than melting slowly like an ice cube in your sink. Also, the rates of melting during a handful of events observed over the last couple of years were entirely unpredicted and shocked scientists watching the process. Also, previously unknown causes of rapid melting are as we speak being discovered and measured.

Putting this another way, it would be a reasonable guess that the rate of continental glacial melting will be much higher than previously estimated, but also, the timing and speed of this ice wastage is pretty much unknown, and quite possibly unknowable except in very broad terms.

We have some very fancy models based on physics of ice melting and a few other variables that can be used to estimate ice melt and sea level rise. The problem is, these unpredictable and large scale catastrophic events have never been observed to happen. Yet, we think that they can happen in part because the rate of sea level rise thousands of years ago at the end of the last glacial maximum was so fast at times that it must have involved some pretty rapid events, more rapid than our models are able to predict. Our models can’t predict these events not because the events can not happen but because the models have no way of dealing with them.

This problem reminds me of my days living in the Eastern Congo. Things were mostly peaceful. But, there were some tensions among various social factions, including different ethnic groups, different classes, and so on. There was tension along the borders between Zaire, Rwanda, and Uganda. But there was nothing whatsoever going on during my time there that would have predicted the Rwandan Genocide, the Congo War I or the Congo War II, or any of the troubles that I now realize were just starting then. This would be especially true if we were making careful sociological observations, measuring variables, taking polls, counting things, and so on and so forth. Major social upheaval comes when it comes, and is rarely accurately predicted by those carefully measured and modeled variables, and the timing and magnitude of those upheavals is never known in advance. And as human society so often goes, so may well go the glaciers of Greenland and the Antarctic. Our physics based models are going to look rather silly, predicting a melting rate of several centimeters a year, when three or four big-gigantic glacial monster fragments fall into the ocean within a year or two of each other along with a steady stream of slush causing ten years worth of sea level rise faster than you can say “property values in New York City may be slightly depressed” three times.

The Good News

There is no good news. But what often happens is that a bit of research comes along and looks like good news. This research is then identified, pointed to, repeated again and again, over-interpreted, used to argue that global warming is not real, and even used to argue that those who have been saying all along that global warming is real are making it up, on someone’s payroll, are part of some huge conspiracy, etc. etc.

In other words, the progress of understanding of the potential future effects of climate change is set back significantly every time a research project with slightly good news, or even just less bad news than usual, is reported. This is ironic, because so many of those research projects have flaws in them that if taken account of suggest that the good news is not really there to begin with.

For example, a recent study seemed to show that the response of the planet to increased Carbon Dioxide is less than we expected it to be, but only over the short term. The difference between long term “climate sensitivity” (the amount of warming you get from a certain amount of greenhouse gas) and short term is probably where the heat goes not how much is added. Over the last few years, the ocean has been taking on a larger share of the heat from global warming, so the atmosphere has not warmed up as much (though it has warmed). But, the partial story … that “sensitivity” is less for the present decade has been translated by various re-tellers of the science to suggest that we’ll be fine. In fact, the slowdown in rate of atmospheric warming, which is still warming (like I just said) is called a “stall” in warming. But it is not a stall. It is a slow down in rate in atmospheric warming and a speed up in rate of oceanic warming. That is not really good news though it is reported as good news. But there isn’t good news, just slightly more complicated news. (See this for a summary of that particular story.)

Not long ago another set of nuanced scientific observations were converted by the once reputable Matt Ridley in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, an outlet guilty of publishing this sort of misleading commentary on a regular basis, into “good news.” In …

“Cooling Down the Fears of Climate Change,” [Ridley] (falsely) asserts observations suggest global warming will be so low as to “be benificial.” This risible piece by Matt Ridley is so riddled with basic math and science errors it raises the question of how the Journal can possibly maintain its reputation as a credible source of news and financial analysis.

Ambiguous News

Of particular poignancy at the moment, since as I’m writing this the bodies of third graders are being pulled from a tornado-ravaged elementary school in Oklahoma, is discussion of the relationship between global warming and storminess. Storms are complicated. They vary in number from year to year, they vary in where they strike, and they vary in intensity per storm. Nonetheless there are patterns. There has been exactly one Atlantic hurricane in the south Atlantic ever, as far as we know. They only occur in the north. Tornadoes don’t occur randomly; they are clustered mostly in certain regions of the world and mostly occur during certain months, though there is a lot of variation. (I discuss this at length here and here.)

Hurricanes are fueled by warm seas, and ripped apart by high level winds. Global warming causes sea surfaces to warm, and may also strengthen tropical and subtropical high level winds. So, does global warming mean more hurricanes or fewer? Or fewer but when they happen, stronger ones? Or what?

In the US, severe thunderstorms, bad straight line winds, and swarms of tornadoes typically arise from moist and warm unstable air masses organized along west to east and south to north moving fronts, with the heat and moisture starting out in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a big warm wet place during the summer. It stands to reason that if you heat up the Gulf, you’ll get more of this, and global warming is heating up the Gulf. But the actual distribution and behavior of these fronts will also depend on the distribution of the famous “Jet Streams” and that is potentially altered by climate change. So, will global warming involve more tornadoes, stronger ones, or will they simply occur somewhere else? Or what?

There is one thing we know about storms. They are ultimately manifestations of heat, and more specifically, they result from the uneven redistribution of heat originally from the sun concentrated in tropical regions and moving towards polar regions by currents of water and air. In a heated up world there is more energy to feed storms. It is impossible to imagine a significantly warmed ocean and a significantly warmed atmosphere without significantly more storm activity and/or stronger storms, and maybe even some new kinds of storms. The problem is that it is hard to say what kinds of storms will increase, if there will be more of some kind of storm or more severe instances. For that matter, maybe all storm types will “increase” at one time or another, taking turns being the big storm problem for a few years, and sometimes that increase will be in numbers, sometimes in strength, sometimes manifest as a change in location of the patterned storm activity. That would be a statistical nightmare. It would be a lot of “moreness” of various phenomena but distributed across a range of different manifestations so that counting storms or measuring storms of specific types will show a pattern only after decades. This is why we sometimes look at overall damage to property from meteorological events over time, and there we do see a steady increase. It is also why the insurance companies, who are not stupid about these things, are so worried.

“Global warming appeasers” (people who pretend to understand the science but who are really trying to make climate change sound like it is not a big deal, like Ridley) and denialists alike are taking advantage of the statistical difficulty of measuring changes in patterns of storms to assert that “we can’t link storms, or storminess, to climate change.” But we can. We know there will be a link between a heated up earth and storm patterns, we are just more than a little uncertain as to what kind of change that will ultimately consist of.

Again, there will be no good news about storminess. Just more detailed news, and possibly a more nuanced understanding, which unfortunately will require more nuanced reporting and commentary.

Good luck with that.

Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB via Compfight cc

Extreme Weather in the US Northeast and Climate Change

This graph shows the extremes in one-day precipitation in a given month relative to the amount of precip in that month for the Northeastern US. So, if the green bar is at 30%, that means that that 30% of month’s precip fell in one event. The way this is computed is a little complicated because it is hard to define an “event” in time and space in relation to the time and space coordinates (as it were) we normally use. Check the source of the graph for a more detailed explanation. The point of this graph is that the opposite is true from what many expect: It isn’t the case that the snow was deeper back when you were a kid. It’s deeper now! (Check out this blog post for an explanation for why you may have misremembered your childhood.) There are a number of contributing factors to a pattern like this, with increasing extreme events, but the best way to think of this may be as an increase in the bimodality of the water cycle. Dry events are dryer (you may have noticed widespread drought) and wet events are wetter (as shown in this graph).

Northeastern US extreme precip events; more extreme rain and snow storms in more recent times.
From NOAA National Climatic Data Center.

Welcome Spring Storm Season

This picture, from a current (as of this writing) accuweather forecast page, is an excellent illustration of what happens here in the upper Midwest the spring.


The overall pattern of movement of air masses at the continental scale is west to east, with extra moist and extra warm air secondarily moving north from the Gulf of Mexico, and cool and usually dry air coming form the Northwest (not shown here but note the “blizzard” part) and with dry Pacific/Rocky Mountain air coming from the west. The main energy flow to keep an eye on is that coming from the Gulf.

There is a rule of thumb you can apply here….

Continue reading Welcome Spring Storm Season