I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 10:22 PM GMT on February 09, 2015
Headlining Again: Flirting with Insufferable
Two weeks ago, on January 25, a public affairs representative asked me if I wanted to make a statement in advance of the historic blizzard predicted for the Northeast. After that conversation, a little write up was released offering me up as an expert for the press. My comment was that I didn’t think the storm should be conflated with climate change, and I had doubts about it being “historic.” This, of course, assured that no one would call me in advance of the blizzard. My more pithy comment, that it would be historic in the sense that it was consistent with history, did not carry the day either. Given the way the forecast and the reporting unfolded, I have been given an opportunity to be completely insufferable.
Here’s a little record of the news cycle on my Tumblr site.
Given that my last blog was on the role that we scientists sometimes play in fueling climate-science controversies, the blizzard seems like a natural follow on. In fact, the 2011 piece with Christine Shearer, “Changing the Media Discussion on Climate and Extreme Weather,” used the example of event attribution as a place where scientists fuel headlines that are not always productive.
Here are the three reasons that I declined to conflate the storm with climate change and to talk about a potential “historic” event.
1. The practice of trying to attribute some portion of a storm to climate change is a no-win practice. I understand the curiosity that leads to public interest. I understand the curiosity of the scientific investigation of event attribution. I am not convinced that there is any policy relevance of event attribution.
We have one climate, the Earth’s climate. We have one atmosphere. If we focus on the atmosphere, then we have weather that occurs in the atmosphere, and we have the climate of that atmosphere. Weather and climate are both ways that humans describe temperature, moisture, winds, etc., in this case, associated with the atmosphere. Weather and climate are not separate and independent things; they are different descriptions of the same measures of the atmosphere. If climate changes, weather changes. If weather changes, climate changes. Therefore, every weather event occurs in our changing climate on our warming Earth. Since our understanding and description of weather relies on temperature, moisture, wind, and how they vary, it is unrealistic to imagine that weather events are not influenced by the changing climate.
The questions of how an event differs, today, in our warmer climate from a similar event in the past, can be addressed, but such a determination relies upon statistics and statements of probability and likelihood. Conclusions are never definitively verifiable. Probability and likelihood are notoriously difficult ways to communicate in quiet consultation, and even more difficult in newspapers, on the radio, television and online. Probability and risk are just made for conflicting headlines. The conclusions are, therefore, by definition, uncertain, and uncertainty can always fuel both sides of a rhetorical or a political argument. Therefore, as with marking one temperature record after another, attribution headlines obscure what is important about climate change.
2. As in my series on the not so “super El Nino,” predicting an extreme event as super, historic or unprecedented mostly sets the predictor up as a foil to those interested in maintaining the turmoil of conflicting headlines. Extreme events are rare, and an event that is more extreme than any previous extreme event is rarer. Therefore, many things have to come together to justify such a prediction. I count on the dispassionate language of science-based organizations to describe model forecasts. The appearance of imprecise adjectives of extremes should be expected to fuel an extreme-fascinated society into its next exercise of false urgency and compulsion for crisis management. When I was asked to comment on whether or not a historic storm was likely for a particular place at a particular time, the forecast was far too distant in the future; too many things had to come together, perfectly, to justify such a prediction.
3. I am not a weather forecaster. I have worked with outstanding forecasters. I have managed the building and verification of weather-forecasting systems and climate models. There were a number of attributes of the model prediction that raised yellow flags. This included the fact that weather-forecast reporting, now, has the gamesmanship of Euro versus U.S.
What were the yellow flags? The forecast was for a fast moving disturbance to move across the continent, to interact with a front off of the East Coast, to grow, and to move to the north and east. The first yellow flags were a lot of moving parts and growing. Then, there is a set of aspects that put up more warning flags. There is the need to get water from the warmer-than-normal ocean, transport that water, and convert it to rain and snow. These are aspects of modeling that are difficult to represent and more different to link together.
Within the model, there are events occurring on different measures (scales) of space and time. The evaporation of water is represented in the models in areas on the Earth’s surface that are a few kilometers on their sides. The actual evaporation occurs in much smaller representative areas and depends on many unrepresented details of the Earth’s surface. The evaporation, the transport, and the conversion of water from liquid to vapor, from vapor to water, ice and snow, must be organized into moving and growing storms whose geographical extent is from 10 to 100 times larger. We want to know the transition line between rain, sleet and snow. Then, after all of these elements of a storm are collected together and forecast into the future, we ask the model to give us an answer that distinguishes Manhattan from Queens from Hauppauge. We want answers separated by smaller distances than the smallest distances that the models represent. The expectations are not in realistic alignment with possibility. There are too many things that have to come together in the 24-48 hours of the forecast to justify the hyperbole of super, historic and unprecedented.
Weather and climate models are amazing and powerful tools. They help us think about what the weather and climate will do. They help us think about how to prepare. They also have intrinsic, sometime irreducible limitations. With regard to this weather forecast, if a model represents the surface of the Earth with patches of surface than are 10 km on the side, then the uncertainty associated with a particular weather event is more like 50 to 100 km (Recent effective resolution paper). Within that range of uncertainty, the forecast of the 2015 Northeast blizzard was spot on.
Weather and climate models are powerful and dispassionate tools. They have no control over how we take that information, determine knowledge content, describe that knowledge, react to that knowledge and use that knowledge. There are those trained in interpretation of forecasts and the prediction of weather events. There are those trained in the identification of vulnerabilities and assessment of risk. There are those trained in response to perceived risk and in response to realized risk. There are those trained in communication, and those trained in capturing audience. Increasingly, we allow our communication to be framed by those experts in capturing audience; we watch stories flame in news cycles that are rife with inaccuracy and incompleteness. We allow the foibles of communication to damage the chain of expertise for making and using forecasts.
This weekend Dean Smith died. Dean Smith has a larger-than-life iconography in sport, society and life. Smith was notorious for causing chaos at the end of basketball games when Carolina was trailing. In that chaos was opportunity. Weather, climate and the relationship of weather and climate play out in public, where there are many chattering voices looking for attention and audience – mine included. The desire to predict, for rightness and for attention motivates us to take distinguishing positions that differentiate us from others. This is chaotic. Then there are those in the climate-change conversation who are deliberately chaotic. As scientists claiming to advocate knowledge-based decisions, we must understand that we step into this world of natural and manufactured chaos. There are things we do repeatedly, record marking and event attribution amongst them, which help fuel the chaos, and obscure what is important about climate change.
The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.