Science and Weather

Science and Weather November 5, 2012

From the NY Review of Books by Bill McKibben:

Science and its practical consort Engineering mostly come out of this week with enhanced reputations. For some years now, various researchers have been predicting that such a trauma was not just possible but almost certain, as we raised the temperature and with it the level of the sea—just this past summer, for instance, scientists demonstrated that seas were rising faster near the northeast United States (for reasons having to do with alterations to the Gulf Stream) than almost anyplace on the planet. They had described, in the long run, the loaded gun, right down to a set of documents describing the precise risk to the New York subway system….

In so doing, it should shame at least a little those people who argue against the computer modeling of climate change on the grounds that “they can’t even tell the weather three days ahead of time—how can they predict the climate?” But in fact “they” can tell the weather, and in the process they saved thousands upon thousands of lives. They can tell the future too. No serious climate scientist believes that the sea will rise less than a meter this century, unless we get off fossil fuel with great speed; many anticipate it will rise far more. Think about what that means—as one researcher put it this week, it means that any average storm will become an insidious threat….

Building new defenses will be expensive but relatively popular; cracking down on the fossil fuel industry will be a great trial, and indeed Cuomo has an important test approaching. He must decide at some point in the coming years whether to allow fracking within the borders of the Empire State. A lead author of a very weak report from his Department of Environmental Conservation is a climate denier; after Sandy it will be interesting to see if the governor asks for a new study from people in touch with actual science. I think he might; as powerful as the fracking lobby is, the sight of a hundred apartment and office lobbies filled with seawater is more visceral. We’ve been given a warning by science, and a wake-up call by nature; it is up to us now to heed them.

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  • I doubt the battle with the deniers of anthropogenic climate change is over – far from it. But they are going to have to give up their unequal battle against the clear evidence eventually. In the meantime they have seriously delayed action, at least in the USA.

    Paradoxically though, Hurricane Sandy does not strengthen the evidence very much. On the other hand warming will certainly have exacerbated the effects of the storm in several ways. The winds will have been a little higher and the diameter of the storm larger, meanwhile the flooding will have been a little worse. (See )

  • Two things. There is no way to transition immediately to a renewable fuel economy without collapsing the world economy. I know of few scientists who believe this is possible. Transitional steps are needed.

    Fracking allows us to switch to natural gas, which produces far less CO2. The Kyoto Accords were intended to get us to pre-1990 level of CO2 emissions. Over the past five years our energy related CO2 emissions have plunged us back to 1990 levels because of our move toward natural gas accessed through fracking:

    Second, move to nuclear power. Third generation, nuclear power is much safer and efficient then the second generation power at Fukushima. Fourth generation, likely not available for at least another decade, will be even more efficient and produce waste that needs to be stored for a few centuries instead of hundreds of millennia.

    In the meantime, renewable and alternative sources of energy will have time to mature, hopefully, phasing out fossil fuel altogether at some future date.

    The other thing. Warming is supposed to occur more or less in tandem with the increase in CO2. Many Climate models say that 15-17 absence of warming in the midst of anthropogenic global warming is very unlikely. This has been the position of Phil Jones director of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. We now have 16 years of virtually no change in the global temperature, a fact that East Anglia and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration don’t dispute:

    Does this tell us that long-term global warming isn’t happening? No. The Twentieth Century warmed but there were three episodes of plateau/cooling that lasted a decade or more. Climate scientists say that unanticipated or unaccounted for natural events have caused the recent plateau. Fine. But then that means your models are not robust at predicting climate changes. So how much faith should laypeople put in statements like:

    “No serious climate scientist believes that the sea will rise less than a meter this century, unless we get off fossil fuel with great speed.”

    Prudence is the order of the day. There is science that tells us we are having an impact on the environment but the models are not very robust in predicting climate or in estimating the degree human behavior is having. In the face of this, radical calls to suspend ALL fossil fuel usage and crash the world economy strike me as alarmist. We need more holistic transitional alternatives.

  • Eric E

    Scientists don’t claim their models can predict the climate for an arbitrary short period of time (15-20 years is a short period of time). Their models are for long term predictions and they don’t claim them to be otherwise. In this sense, their models are very robust. Here is the MET Office’s response to the 16 year issue:

    And I highly recommend this link for an introduction to the models:

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Actually, to pin any individual storm on the effects of climate change is invalid. Long term trends that take into account better records and detection might be of more use, although, as any statistician would tell you, correlation does not equal causation.

    Secondly, given that the weather is a dynamical system, I’m extremely wary of long term projections.

    Do we have global warming? Absolutely – for the last 18 000 years already. Anthropgenic warming – sure, that seems plausible. I do not frequent Climatological journals, so I’d be interested in studies that attempts to ascertain the % breakdown between standard warming and fossil-fuel induced warming. That could be a very interesting study. However, even if the component is relatively small, the affects could be big (or not), due to the properties of dynamical systems.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    In #4, I should have said “non-linear dynamical system”.

  • Eric E.

    And Judith Curry responded to met office statement here:

    Here are quotes she includes quotes.

    Kevin Trenberth – National Center for Atmospheric Research

    “The hiatus [in warming] was not unexpected. Variability in the climate can suppress rising temperatures temporarily, though before this decade scientists were uncertain how long such pauses could last. In any case, one decade is not long enough to say anything about human effects on climate; as one forthcoming paper lays out, 17 years is required.”

    Dana Nuticelli – Skeptical Science Blog

    “The models exhibit large variations in the rate of warming from year to year and over a decade, owing to climate variations such as ENSO, the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation and Pacific Decadal Oscillation. So in that sense, such a period is not unexpected. It is not uncommon in the simulations for these periods to last up to 15 years, but longer periods are unlikely.”

    In another post:

    “The implications of the 16 year plateau are this:

    a) the IPCC detection arguments rely on a clear separation between the signals from forced climate change and natural internal variability. Numerous climate model analyses find that it is very unlikely that a plateau or period of cooling extends beyond 15-17 years in the presence of anthropogenic global warming.

    b) failure of the climate models to predict a >17 year plateau raises questions about the suitability of the climate models for detection and attribution analyses, particularly in terms of accounting adequately for multidecadal modes of climate variability

    c) comparison of the observed temperature trend with the IPCC projection of 0.2C increase in the early 21st century raises issues about the models’ reliability in terms of sensitivity to external forcing and ability to deal with natural internal variability.”

    I stand by what I wrote above.

  • Eric E

    And I stand by what I wrote. The models are very robust. We can’t take an arbitrary span of time (e.g., why did they pick 1997 instead of, say, 1999 which shows a greater increase in surface temp?), point to a supposed “pause” in surface temperatures and then declare the models to be not very robust. That’s a popular tactic by climate change deniers and its been given the name “The Escalator”: Also notice that the Nuccitelli quote above says that even their simulations show “pauses” like this – it isn’t uncommon. Let me say that again – their simulations predict “pauses” like this.

    But this method of denial is even more misleading because the data they are talking about is only global surface temperatures. An important ascect of global warming is that the total heat content of the earth is increasing (not just surface temperatures) and when you look at that data, there are no “pauses.” See this paper by Nuccitelli: Especially see Fig. 1 that shows the total heat content of the oceans, land, ice and atmosphere. The conclusion of the paper is “We find no evidence that the global flux imbalance has declined significantly in recent years, or that the CO2 feedback is negative or inconsistent with climate models.”

  • Eric E

    Also, just to add to/better explain my last point. There is data showing that when surface temperatures of the earth stay flat like this that the heat content of the deep parts of oceans rise. Essentially what happens is that deep ocean currents and shallow ocean currents cause warm water to drop and cooler water to rise to the surface. This cooler water in turn causes the surface temperatures of the earth to remain relatively stable.

    What scientists really say is that the total energy absorbed by the earth is rising because greenhouse gases are causing less energy to be radiated out to space. Some of this energy is absorbed by the atmosphere, some by land and some by oceans. Temperature rise is caused by this increase in energy but the temperature rise may not always be seen in the same the same places.