Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Greg has air conditioning in his trailer

Talking about the weather is a classic neutral conversation starter. Religion and politics are the classic “topics to avoid” in conversation. The news of late may begin to blur this time-honored division; talk of the weather sounds more and more like talk of religion and politics. Descriptions of the devastation caused by the tornados of April, and now of late May, sound like the frontline dispatches of a trench-bound war correspondent. The body counts are topping the psychological levy which separates mean statistics from human faces and lives. One could be reading a story about the latest catastrophic bombing from somewhere in the Middle East. Any day now some extremist religious or politico-religious organization should claim responsibility.

The acute change in tone precipitated by the recent tornado tragedies plays to a chorus of disquieting talk about global climate. Simple talking about the weather now regularly considers the question of climatic effects on weather. Some louder voices proclaim that the new tornado disasters are part of a great pattern of climate induced disasters; other equally loud voices maintain that the inability to directly connect specific weather events to climate means that there is no connection. Most of the voices come from people whose expertise in meteorology or climate science is laughable. This very essay is a case in point as I’m not really sure what “climate” even is.

I’m not alone however. There is a large group of individuals who are so ignorant of what climate even is that they are leading a coordinated effort to properly define it. I refer to many of these folks as “climate scientists”.

There are many folks working on connecting specific weather events to larger weather patterns, and –hopefully- eventually to whatever climate turns out to be. I call these folks meteorologists. They collect data, and then work it to absurd conclusions in fantastical computer models. Right now, somewhere in a windowless room, a computer is churning away data to draw an obviously incorrect conclusion. Current computer models for weather suck. Any one of them might be light-years ahead of everything more than a couple of years old, but they are unable to warn of the devastation we have seen over the past few months…and…that…sucks.

The impression that there are large masses of confused climate scientists and meteorologists wandering around aimlessly is incorrect. These scientists may be unable to produce the actionable information that is so easily imagined, but they are not going to be a threat to drivers by wandering out into the middle of roads at night…most of them anyway. The data we want seems so simple. We just want to know, years in advance, exactly where and when devastating storms will take place. We would even settle for just information on the really big storms; the small ones could slip out under the radar. This does not seem nearly as cool as X-ray-specs or flying cars, and I’ve seen crude flying cars.

Even if the correct imaginary product has not been produced by these scientists they have not been silent. Almost four years ago Tony Del Genio, Mao-Sung Yao, and Jeff Jonas widely disseminated the results of a model they produced and ran at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (on a computer that was undoubtedly in a windowless room). From that model’s data they suggested that “severe thunderstorms that also occur with significant wind shear and produce damaging winds at the ground” would be stronger, and that this was a result of global warming. They did not, however, predict that these stronger storms would happen this spring or which towns would be decimated.

By all accounts this spring’s devastating tornado events are exceptional. It will take many more such exceptional situations to conclusively alter what we think of as normal weather. Nobody expects every spring to now bring this level of tornado devastation. The apparent phenomenon of regression to the mean suggests that next spring should not have exceptional tornado devastation. An observed increase in devastating tornados should cause a statistically conclusive alteration in what we call “normal” weather only after the data from many exceptional years has been analyzed. The more certainty we require the more years it costs us.

Questions also arise concerning the type, quality, and quantity of data to be gathered. Although the death toll (upwards of 500) is many times average (60) tornado occurrence rates may not be. According to Greg Carbin lead forecaster of the National Weather Service's National Severe Storm Laboratory:

"There is no indication of an upward trend in either intensity or numbers. We've had a lot more reports of tornadoes, but most of those tornadoes are actually the weak tornadoes, the F-0. When you take out the F-0 tornadoes from the long-term record, there is very little increase in the total number of tornadoes, and we don't see any increase in the number of violent tornadoes. It's just that these things are coming, and they're very rare and extreme, and they happen to be hitting populated areas. So right now, no indication of an upward trend in the strong to violent tornadoes that we're seeing."

Of course Greg also said:

"And, so, we can go many, many years without seeing the level of activity we have seen. And whether there's actually an increase in this activity or its intensity, we -- we just don't know that yet. We don't have a long enough record really. The record is pretty short when it comes to atmospheric data on tornadoes."

And Greg said this when pressed on climate change:

Asked if climate change should be “acquitted” in a jury trial where it stood charged with responsibility for tornadoes, Carbin replied: “I would say that is the right verdict, yes.” Because there is no direct connection as yet established between the two? “That’s correct,” Carbin replied."  -- 28 April 2011 FoxNews

It would probably be in our best interest to respond to both global climate change and any problems it might cause. However, we anticipate a lack of certainty. Perhaps we should just take the June 2009 conclusions of the US Chamber of Commerce to heart:

"Overall, there is strong evidence that populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations."


"Humans have become less susceptible to the effects of heat due to a combination of adaptations, particularly air conditioning. The availability of air conditioning is expected to continue to increase."

I suppose if you get a heavy enough air conditioner you can crouch behind it during a tornado.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great entry- one of the most cohesive thus far! You should apply for National syndication!

The spokesperson for the National Weather Service-science-trained, and LEAD forecaster!?- should be indicted for making such ignorant and contradictory statements. He's certainly not in any position to suggest an acquittal for any evidence that may be related to climate change! Fox News probably jumped on obtaining a sound bite after they heard his initial, non-committal comments on NPR!