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Precip

After almost nine feet of snow in 2015, no one can be blamed for wanting an early spring here in New England. There are parts of my yard that I haven’t seen since New Years Day. After yet another non-white Christmas last year, I suppose it serves us right for complaining about it. I recently found myself stuck in the house wondering aloud: is this a result of… global warming?

With opposition to the Obama administration’s drive to establish regulations on power plants and the push for a new United Nations climate pact, perhaps Vice President Joe Biden is feeling an increase in pressure when he recently called skeptics of climate change “stupid.” The climate change debate seems far from settled, especially beyond the fact that humans are causing a global spike in temperatures. Last year, Scientist Steven E. Koonin wrote a provocative article in the Wall Street Journal titled Climate Science Is Not Settled:

…The discussion should not be about “believing” or “denying” the science. Despite the statements of numerous scientific societies, the scientific community cannot claim any special expertise in addressing issues related to humanity’s deepest goals and values. The political and diplomatic spheres are best suited to debating and resolving such questions, and misrepresenting the current state of climate science does nothing to advance that effort… Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future. Recognizing those limits, rather than ignoring them, will lead to a more sober and ultimately more productive discussion of climate change and climate policies. To do otherwise is a great disservice to climate science itself. [1]

So what if the correct answer to the climate change debate is something like: “we know all about the risk, but who cares?” Or as former President George W. Bush might say, “bring it on!” The Climate Science Watch blog recognized the crisis and rallied to the defense of established climate science:

Models are designed for long-term projections: asking them to predict short-term variability is like confusing a calendar and a clock. Through Koonin’s choice of emphasis, he encourages the reader to jump to the inaccurate conclusion that warming might end up being negligible, but never actually states this because the science doesn’t support it. [2]

Dr. Michael Mann, Professor of Meteorology and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State piled on (with CAPS for emphasis):

… Koonin mentions that this climate is always changing. This is a standard line in the Wall Street Journal because it sounds reasonable at first blush, but of course it conveys a deep falsehood. The fact is that the actual peer-reviewed scientific research shows that (a) the rate of warming over the past century is unprecedented as far back as the 20,000 years paleoclimate scientists are able to extend the record and (b) that warming can ONLY be explained by human influences.

Indeed, it is the RATE of warming that presents such risk to human civilization and our environment. There is no doubt that there were geological periods that were warmer than today due to long-term changes in greenhouse gas concentrations driven by natural factors like plate tectonics. But consider the early Cretaceous 100 million years ago when CO2 concentrations were even higher than today, and there were dinosaurs roaming the ice-free poles. Over the last 100 million years, nature slowly buried all of that additional CO2 beneath Earth’s surface in the form of fossil fuels. We are now unburying that carbon a *MILLION* times faster than it was buried, leading to unprecedented rates of increase in greenhouse concentrations and resulting climate changes. To claim that this is just part of a natural cycle is to be either deeply naive or disingenuous. [3]

As weather reports this week will prove, predicting the weather is an almost impossible problem to solve. Beyond a couple of days, our understanding of what the weather will do is severely limited. Computer models have been so notoriously inaccurate in predicting actual climate change that the American Physical Society has jumped into the nasty debate with both feet:

Recently, the American Physical Society has appointed a committee to review its stance on so-called climate change that includes three distinguished skeptics: Judith Curry, John Christy and Richard Lindzen. Their credentials are impressive… A question the American Physical Society panel will address is: Why wasn’t the current global temperature stasis, with no discernible change in the past 15 years, not predicted by any of the climate models used by the IPCC, part of the United Nations? [4]

Regardless of predictability, our weather has been ever more super-charged as a result of “climate change,” “global warming,” “the polar vortex” or whatever you want to call it. Recent weather has been extreme and it feels like it’s getting more so every year. The costliest American natural disasters, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, are just the latest, tangible examples of the real risk associated with the climate change debate. Some of the more extreme thinkers and writers, if not scientists themselves, are warning that is there is a coming global superstorm!

The Day After Tomorrow was a 2004 movie with Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhall which dramatized the climate change debate as only Hollywood could. In the movie, a sudden and catastrophic change in ocean circulation brought on by global warming means that a new ice age occurs in less than a week. For the purposes of riveting moviegoers to their seats for two hours, the first reel of the film features a tidal wave and a blizzard of ice and super freezing temperatures, forming a glacier over the Northern United States a mile deep. The dramatic arc of the father/son relationship between Quaid and Gyllenhall wasn’t even remotely established by the time America was destroyed. A few climate scientists at the time were willing to voice support for the movie, such as Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, expert in thermohaline circulation and its effects on climate. He blurbed:

“Clearly this is a disaster movie and not a scientific documentary, the film makers have taken a lot of artistic license. But the film presents an opportunity to explain that some of the basic background is right: humans are indeed increasingly changing the climate and this is quite a dangerous experiment, including some risk of abrupt and unforeseen changes. After all – our knowledge of the climate system is still rather limited, and we will probably see some surprises as our experiment with the atmosphere unfolds. Most scientists think this will only become a more serious risk towards the end of the century. And the consequences would certainly not be as dramatic as the ‘super-storm’ depicted in the movie… I think it would be a mistake and not do the film justice if scientists simply dismiss it as nonsense. For what it is, a blockbuster movie that has to earn back 120 million dollars in production costs, it is probably as good as you can get. For this type of movie for a very broad audience it is actually quite subversive and manages to slip in many thought-provoking things. I’m sure people will not confuse the film with reality, they are not stupid – they will know it is a work of fiction. But I hope that it will stir their interest for the subject, and that they might take more notice when real climate change and climate policy will be discussed in future.” [5]

For the record, the film grossed almost $550,000,000 at the box office – not bad for an awful movie about climate science. It featured crowds of Americans fleeing south across the Mexican border seeking warmth, instead of Mexicans heading north in search of jobs and prosperity. Director Roland Emmerich clearly savored the ironic flipping of the immigration debate, seen through the lens of a thriller where the weather substitutes for the shark in a thinly veiled rip-off of Jaws (1975). The villain personified in The Day After Tomorrow is a Dick Cheney type U.S. Vice President who denies the risk of global warming, right up until the White House is frozen as solid as a Dove Bar. He takes the role of Mayor Larry Vaughn of Amity Island, denying obvious mortal risk in order to satisfy moneyed interests, only here it is far less well handled than in Jaws. The film simplified the climate change debate to the absurd and the result is an unsatisfying flick. But the special effects were fantastic! It’s not easy to make a popular entertainment about the realities of an unpredictable and boring field of study like climate science, so the drama needed to be amped up until the world is destroyed and the Statue of Liberty is buried up to her torch. In the film Melancholia (2011), the unrelenting natural force is a small planet named Melancholia, spinning in orbits closer and closer to planet Earth until the inevitable conflagration and Armegeddon. Credits roll. Melancholia was a much more realistic film than The Day After Tomorrow.

Will the next years bring bigger storms and more hurricanes? Will there ever be a Category 6 on the Saffir-Simpson scale? Will we just have to wait and find out about climate change in 100 years or so? With computers changing the face of science and the culture in so many profound ways, where are the computer models that mirror what’s happening outside of my window? Why can’t we feed in a dozen or so factors such as barometric pressure, solar cycles, ocean currents, wind speeds and gravitational waves into a Cray Supercomputer on a super network of supercomputers churning out our flawless weather forecasts and climate predictions?

Mathematician Norbert Wiener insisted that attempts to model the weather by crunching physics equations with computers, as if meteorology were an exact science like astronomy, were doomed to fail. He warned that:

“the self-amplification of small details” would foil any attempt to predict weather. One pioneer in computer prediction recalled that Wiener went so far as to say privately that leaders of the work were “misleading the public by pretending that the atmosphere was predictable.” [6]

In 1961, climate scientist R.C. Sutcliffe, at an international climate conference said:

“Unceasing variation might be “built-in,” an intrinsic feature of the climate system. Thus it might be pointless to look for external causes of climate change, such as solar variations or volcanic eruptions. Every season the pattern of the general circulation of the atmosphere was newly created, perhaps in a quite arbitrary way. The “sudden jumps” seen in the climate record, Sutcliffe concluded, are “suggestive of a system controlling its own evolution.” [7]

The field of chaos theory as we know it today began with the study of weather prediction models when Edward Lorenz, an MIT meteorologist, was the first to recognize chaotic behavior in the mathematical modeling of weather systems. In the early 1960s, Lorenz realized that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere could trigger vast and often unsuspected results. These observations ultimately led him to formulate what became known as the butterfly effect – a term from an academic paper he presented in 1972 titled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas? Lorenz’ insight was that it was fundamentally impossible to predict weather beyond two or three weeks with a reasonable degree of accuracy. While some programming of computer models rely on well-tested physical laws, other parts involve estimates. Computer modeling of the climate is as much an art as a science, and to rely on these models as proof that anything particular will happen in the future is nonsense. Richard Lindzen, former Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in 2010:

The IPCC claim that most of the recent warming (since the 1950s) is due to man assumed that current models adequately accounted for natural internal variability. The failure of these models to anticipate the fact that there has been no statistically significant warming for the past 14 years or so contradicts this assumption. This has been acknowledged by major modeling groups in England and Germany. However, the modelers chose not to stress this. Rather they suggested that the models could be further corrected, and that warming would resume by 2009, 2013, or even 2030…

…This is not to say that disasters will not occur; they always have occurred, and this will not change in the future. Fighting global warming with symbolic gestures will certainly not change this. However, history tells us that greater wealth and development can profoundly increase our resilience. [8]

We must consider the possibility that natural forces and variability are dynamic enough on our planet to counteract warming caused by human activity. The Earth will seek equilibrium and stasis, regardless what we do or don’t do about carbon emissions. But should we do anything to help lessen the harmful effects of climate change? Are we going to stop driving our cars and heating and cooling our houses and workplaces? Will we stop flying planes and growing food and powering up our appliances and computers? Of course not! Should we try and reduce those nasty carbon emissions wherever possible and feasible? Of course we should! Will Google Energy solve all our renewable energy needs forever and ever? The answer, my friend, is a butterfly blowin’ in the wind.

John Underhill (March 18, 2015).

__________________

  1. Steven A. Koonin (September 19, 2014). Climate Science Is Not Settled. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 10, 2015.
  2. Climate Science Watch (September 20, 2014). On eve of climate march, Wall Street Journal publishes call to wait and do nothing. Retrieved March 14, 2015.
  3. Climate Science Watch (Report). On eve of climate march, Wall Street Journal publishes call to wait and do nothing. Retrieved March 14, 2015.
  4. IBD Editorial (March 21, 2013) Mythical Climate Science Claim Hits Iceberg Investor’s Business Daily. Retrieved March 18, 2015.
  5. Wikipedia article The Day After Tomorrow (2004) Retrieved March 14, 2015.
  6. Spencer Weart & The American Institute of Physics (Report). Chaos in the Atmosphere. Retrieved March 14, 2015.
  7. Spencer Weart & The American Institute of Physics (Report). Chaos in the Atmosphere. Retrieved March 14, 2015.
  8. Richard Lindzen (2010) The Earth is Never in Equilibrium Retrieved March 17, 2015.

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