Memo to New York Times: We are NOT in a Deep Freeze
I’m featured in John Broder’s story, “Climate-Change Debate Is Heating Up in Deep Freeze.“ Before getting to the story, I must comment once again on how a dreadful headline mars an otherwise fairly reasonable story for the NY Times.
We are not in a deep freeze. Quite the reverse.
Let’s see. The 2000s were easily the hottest decade on record (as NASA and NOAA and the World Meteorological Organization report). And 2009 was one of the hottest years on record — tied for second hottest in NASA’s dataset. And we are now in the warmest winter globally, as I noted in my Monday post, “Massive moisture-driven extreme precipitation during warmest winter in the satellite record “” and the deniers say it disproves (!) climate science.”
Heck, even over the tiny fraction of the planet’s surface that is the continental United States, NOAA just reported that January was “0.3 degrees above the long-term average” — notwithstanding the media coverage (and hype by the anti-science ideologues) that might have left you with the serious misimpression last month was unusually cold.
I know Broder reads the blog since he quoted my Wednesday post in his piece, and he links to Climate Progress. And yes, I know he almost certainly didn’t write the headline.
We are living in a world where the media is desperate for eyeballs and looking for the most sexy and sensational headlines, even if they don’t match the story. And since many people don’t get far past the headline, they’ll be left with a profoundly mistaken impression.
The story itself is much better, if you read the whole thing.
As millions of people along the East Coast hole up in their snowbound homes, the two sides in the climate-change debate are seizing on the mounting drifts to bolster their arguments.Skeptics of global warming are using the record-setting snows to mock those who warn of dangerous human-driven climate change “” this looks more like global cooling, they taunt.
Most climate scientists respond that the ferocious storms are consistent with forecasts that a heating planet will produce more frequent and more intense weather events.
But some independent climate experts say the blizzards in the Northeast no more prove that the planet is cooling than the lack of snow in Vancouver or the downpours in Southern California prove that it is warming.
Okay, this sets up a standard he-said, she-said. The third sentence gets it right. What’s happening is fully “consistent with” climate science. The anti-science ideologues are pushing nonsense. And of course, not only is weather not climate, but precipitation is not temperature.
Broder’s fourth sentence is a puzzle — especially the “But” — since I don’t know any people who use the word “prove” in the context of individual weather events and global warming. I try to use “consistent with” or similar language.
For uber-extreme weather events that are record-smashing and consistent with the predictions of global warming science I also sometimes use the phrase “global-warming-type” as in “Weather Channel expert on Georgia’s record-smashing global-warming-type deluge.”
The weather is definitely getting more extreme as I discuss at length in Was the “Blizzard of 2009″³ a “global warming type” of record snowfall “” or an opportunity for the media to blow the extreme weather story (again)? (see also Preparing For Frankenstorms: “The most powerful low pressure system in 140 years of record keeping” slams the Southwest).
Even the Bush Administration in its must-read U.S. Climate Change Science Program report, Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate, acknowledged:
Many extremes and their associated impacts are now changing”¦. Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense”¦.
It is well established through formal attribution studies that the global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases.“¦ The increase in heavy precipitation events is associated with an increase in water vapor, and the latter has been attributed to human-induced warming.
And yes, this applies to snow. A 2005 study, coauthored by the National Climatic Data Center, “Temporal and Spatial Characteristics of Snowstorms in the Contiguous United States,” found:
The temporal distribution of snowstorms exhibited wide fluctuations during 1901-2000, with downward 100-yr trends in the lower Midwest, South, and West Coast. Upward trends occurred in the upper Midwest, East, and Northeast, and the national trend for 1901-2000 was upward, corresponding to trends in strong cyclonic activity.
Finally, we have the 2009 government report on U.S. climate impacts, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, which concluded:
- “Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent.”
- “In winter and spring, northern areas are expected to receive significantly more precipitation than they do now, because the interaction of warm and moist air coming from the south with colder air from the north is projected to occur farther north than it did on average in the last century. The more northward incursions of warmer and moister air masses are expected to be particularly noticeable in northern regions that will change from very cold and dry atmospheric conditions to warmer but moister conditions. Alaska, the Great Plains, the upper Midwest, and the Northeast are beginning to experience such changes for at least part of the year, with the likelihood of these changes increasing over time.”
- “There is also evidence of an increase in the intensity of storms in both the mid- and high- latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere, with greater confidence in the increases occurring in high latitudes. The northward shift is projected to continue, and strong cold season storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent, with greater wind speeds and more extreme wave heights.”
I would add that global warming clearly makes some extreme events worse — for instance, record-breaking droughts are far more brutal when they are hot weather droughts than, say, cool weather droughts (see Australian Scientists: Contrary to media reports, “our paper does not discount climate change as playing a role in this most recent drought, the ‘Big Dry’. In fact, there are indications that climate change has worsened this recent drought”). I would also add that a 13-year long record-smashing drought is obviously much more of a climatic event than, say, one big snowstorm.
Back to the NYT piece:
As an illustration of their point of view, the family of Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, a leading climate skeptic in Congress, built a six-foot-tall igloo on Capitol Hill and put a cardboard sign on top that read “Al Gore’s New Home.”
The extreme weather, Mr. Inhofe said by e-mail, reinforced doubts about scientists’ conclusion that global warming was “unequivocal” and most likely caused by human activity.
Nonsense, responded Joseph Romm, a climate-change expert and former Energy Department official who writes about climate issues at the liberal Center for American Progress.
“Ideologues in the Senate keep pushing the anti-scientific disinformation that big snowstorms are evidence against human-caused global warming,” Mr. Romm wrote on Wednesday.
Ah, brave new world, where I can be featured in a front-page above-the-fold NYT story — without the reporter ever having talked to me! But that is what this blog is for — to engage in the debate — and presumably that’s why they included the active link.
He quoted me accurately, and that is always welcome. Indeed, my only complaint about these lines is that, as my brother pointed out to me, it should be “Dr. Romm.” That’s particularly true if we jump to the end of the story, which talks about the blog post of “Dr. Masters” on the subject:
Speculating on the meaning of severe weather events is not new. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a deadly heat wave in Europe in the summer of 2003 incited similar arguments about what such extremes might “” or might not “” say about the planet’s climate.
But climate scientists say that no single episode of severe weather can be blamed for global climate trends while noting evidence that such events will probably become more frequent as global temperatures rise.
Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes on the Weather Underground blog, said that the recent snows do not, by themselves, demonstrate anything about the long-term trajectory of the planet. Climate is, by definition, a measure of decades and centuries, not months or years.
But Dr. Masters also said that government and academic studies had consistently predicted an increasing frequency of just these kinds of record-setting storms because warmer air carries more moisture.
“Of course,” he wrote on his blog Wednesday as new snows produced white-out conditions in much of the Eastern half of the country, “both climate-change contrarians and climate-change scientists agree that no single weather event can be blamed on climate change.
“However,” he continued, “one can ‘load the dice’ in favor of events that used to be rare “” or unheard of “” if the climate is changing to a new state.”
A federal government report issued last year, intended to be the authoritative statement of known climate trends in the United States, pointed to the likelihood of more frequent snowstorms in the Northeast and less frequent snow in the South and Southeast as a result of long-term temperature and precipitation patterns. The Climate Impacts report, from the multiagency United States Global Change Research Program, also projected more intense drought in the Southwest and more powerful Gulf Coast hurricanes because of warming.
In other words, if the government scientists are correct, look for more snow.
Anyone who reads the whole story will get to read a pretty fair account of what the science says about extreme weather — if they ignore the headline, that is.
- Why the anti-science disinformers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather
- MSNBC’s Ratigan: “These ‘snowpocalypses’ that have been going through DC and other extreme weather events are precisely what climate scientists have been predicting, fearing and anticipating because of global warming.”
- Are meteorologists climate experts?
- “Experts: Cold snap doesn’t disprove global warming”
- In other UK news: “Rain like this happens once every 1,000 years”
- Why the “never seen before” Fargo flooding is just what you’d expect from global warming, as Obama warns
- Record high temperatures far outpace record lows across U.S.