The skeptics are sweating

Former Weather Channel “adamant skeptic” says “it’s a case of Weather Gone Wiggy”: The “nature” of extreme weather “is changing along with changing atmospheric moisture, stability, and circulation patterns.”

Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist at the Weather Channel, has become quite good at explaining the link between global warming and extreme weather — see “Weather Channel expert on Georgia’s record-smashing global-warming-type deluge“:

… there’s a straightforward connection in the way the changing climate “set the table” for what happened this September in Atlanta and elsewhere. It behooves us to understand not only theoretical expected increases in heavy precipitation (via relatively slow/linear changes in temperatures, evaporation, and atmospheric moisture) but also how changing circulation patterns are already squeezing out that moisture in extreme doses and affecting weather in other ways.

But like many former skeptics, he still doesn’t quite get it, as is clear from a recent post on The Weather Channel blog, which I repost below followed by some brief comments:

If we don’t want to get zapped, we must adapt

I first used that line in an entry in May 2009 and then again in April of this year, and given what’s currently going on in the weather and climate I figure it’s time to use it for a title.

An alternate catchy and timely title could have been “The skeptics are sweating” (figuratively and literally). However, that would have been inflammatory. Furthermore, I am able to be empathetic to their sentiments, as I used to be an adamant skeptic myself. That is, in the sense that the term is typically applied to anthropogenic global warming (AGW). “Cynic” is probably a better word, as skepticism is a natural part of science. It’s when being skeptical becomes being closed-minded that it’s a problem.

In my case, Fred Singer, one of the most vocal and prominent “skeptics” over the years, wrote a piece for the Washington Times in 1999 in which he said that “Stu Ostro argues that the weather is pretty much the same as it has always been, only that our perceptions have changed.” That is in reference to a USA Weekend article I co-authored. A reproduction of The Washington Times article still appears on the website of Dr. Singer’s organization, the Science & Environmental Policy Project (SEPP). So when it comes to skepticism about AGW, you could say I have street cred. That, however, hasn’t stopped me from being called “Mr. Ostroass,” as well as a “chill shill,” and my “idiocy” leading me to become “the snake oil salesman of meteorology.”

Nevertheless, I’m gonna, as Harry Nillson once sang, jump into the fire again … although this blog may not end up where you expect it to (and I’m not going to tell you that you can’t drive your SUV) …

I have been an operational weather forecaster during my whole career rather than a climate research scientist. A recent survey found that among TV weathercasters, there’s a lot of skepticism/cynicism about the human role in, and the seriousness of, climate change, and it’s known anecdotally that many behind-the-scenes meteorologists share that viewpoint.

Amongst meteorologists and the general public, it appears to have become a belief system, and that’s where the religious connotations come in. We don’t do the actual climate research, so it’s a question of the degree to which we put our “faith” in the scientists who actually do the climate research, and the data and models that are utilized. In that sense, it could be said that I “converted” and became a “believer.” We don’t have a “parallel Earth” with which to run a “control experiment,” thus the validity of the models can’t be “proven.”

And it could be said that while the skeptics might currently be sweating due to what’s going on climatically and meteorologically, during the past couple of years my own faith in those climate scientists and data and models was tested due to such things as the “Climategate” email imbroglio and a temporary cooling of the Earth, but that my faith has emerged still strong. In fact, my point of view is now stronger than ever that our changing climate is a serious problem. With the goal of being objective and open-minded, I changed my point of view from what it was in the days of the Fred Singer article, and would do so again if that’s what the evidence shows. But it does not.

As I wrote back in 2006, global warming is not a religion. The chemistry, physics, and thermodynamics involved are science, not religion, nor are they liberal or conservative.

Some have pointed to the sharp dip in globally-averaged temperatures during the past couple of years, coupled with a peak in 1998, as proof that global warming stopped. But when smoothing out the short-term wiggles the long-term trend is still up.

Those noisy ups-and-downs are the result of year-to-year natural variability which has always and will always be present. Natural variability and anthropogenic global warming are not mutually exclusive!

Source: NASA

The end of the cooling the past couple of years is also shown by satellite measurements aloft. In addition, preliminary satellite-derived data indicate that globally-average temperatures in the lower-mid “troposphere” were at record levels for mid-late July. (Do you really think that, as has been predicted by some quarters, we’re actually entering a long period of global cooling??)

During this Northern Hemisphere summer, a lot of people, regardless of their views about climate change, have been literally sweating — more than is usually the case at this time of year, in some cases extraordinarily so.

This recent article begins with the statement: “In any debate over climate change, conventional wisdom holds that there is no reflex more absurd than invoking the local weather.”

Indeed, a single exceptionally hot day somewhere is not unusual in any given summer, and it would be inappropriate to attribute such in and of itself to global warming.

What’s different this time is the extremity and/or persistence of the heat, and, as I’ve been preaching for the past several years, the *context*.

There have been individual daily extremes such as Norfolk, Virginia reaching 105 degrees on back-to-back days in late July, equaling the previous highest temperature measured in any month during the period of record which starts in 1874 there. That could happen in any given summer, right? After all, the record that the 105 degree reading tied was first reached way back in 1918, long before the era of passionate debates about global warming. But now consider the context …
Virginia was one of 16 states with July 2010 average temperatures being among the 10 highest in the past 116 years. That included the hottest July on record in Delaware and Rhode Island.

That, in turn, is in the context of many cities from Virginia to Florida to Arkansas having had their record hottest June.

And this after amazing heat records in early spring.

Meanwhile, there has also been extreme flooding in places such as Rhode Island in March and Tennessee in May.

And so on. And that’s just the U.S.

All of that is in the context of the TNA index (Tropical North Atlantic sea surface temperatures) being the warmest on record month after month in 2010.

And off-the-chart low Arctic sea ice volume.

And by both NOAA’s and NASA’s measurement, the first half of 2010 was the warmest such period on record going back to the late 1800s.

And unofficially so far this year 15 nations have experienced their highest temperatures on record. (14 as of the time of this article, plus one more since then.)

One of those is Russia. The heat and smoke have been incredible, including in Moscow, which had not previously measured a temperature of 100F but has now experienced that twice this summer. Today the head of the state weather service, Alexander Frolov, was quoted as saying that the heat wave of 2010 is the worst in 1,000 years of recorded Russian history.

And the signature in the weather pattern — a very strong and persistent ridge of high pressure aloft — has been the key this time, just as it has been in so many other cases of temperature and precipitation extremes in recent years, as I have documented.

In particular, it is similar to that during the peak of the extreme, and extremely deadly, heat wave in Europe in 2003, whose atmospheric circulation pattern was studied by Jerry Meehl et al. These maps show the departure from average pressures aloft (more technically, 500 millibar height anomalies) for the same length of time (13 days) with the same geographical scope (just slightly different locations) and with the same scales. The 2010 ridge has been even stronger.



Furthermore, the pattern aloft shows that the amazing heat in Russia and the extreme rainfall in Pakistan were related meteorologically.

As I put on my Nomex suit not only to protect me from the atmospheric heat but from the heat of blogospheric flames, yes, I am aware of the recent extreme cold and ecological disaster in part of South America. However, it is overwhelmed geographically in the context of the heat, and its pattern is also associated with higher than average pressures aloft. A broad expanse of that “trapped” a small, isolated area of a strong negative anomaly associated with the cold, a signature similar to those with other goofy cold extremes in various places in recent years.

What’s more, just as there was persistent cold weather in certain regions such as the southeast U.S. this past winter despite the season being overall very warm globally, this South American regional cold (and above-average Antarctic sea ice extent) has been associated with an extreme pattern in the polar region. During the Northern Hemisphere winter it was an extreme and persistent anomaly (negative) in what’s known as the AO (Arctic Oscillation), and during this Southern Hemisphere winter it has been an extreme and persistent (positive this time) anomaly in its southern cousin, the AAO (Antarctic Oscillation). The positive values in June and July were the highest observed for those months in records going back to 1979.

And yes, I am also aware of what a remarkable lack of tropical cyclone activity there’s been so far this year in the western Pacific Ocean.

The upshot: Whether with temperatures, precipitation, or storms (tropical or otherwise), and regardless of in which direction the extremes are, it’s a case of Weather Gone Wiggy, and this is happening at the time when the Earth’s climate is at an exceptionally warm level compared to that of at least the past century. There have been extremes for as long as there has been weather; it’s their nature which is changing along with changing atmospheric moisture, stability, and circulation patterns. And we need to deal with that, especially given our vulnerability to disasters even without additional effects of global warming.

It’s been said that politics makes strange bedfellows. Or that politics is a circle (extremes on either side of the spectrum converging). Well, although for different reasons, I ironically find myself agreeing on an aspect of global warming with some whom otherwise I strongly disagree with.

There are those who say we should focus more on adaptation to the effects of climate change rather than mitigation of the causes, because of a political/economic agenda and/or because they “believe” that anthropogenic (human-influenced) global warming is a crock.

By contrast, I don’t “believe” AGW is bunkum; rather, to me it’s real and very serious. But I think that its dangerous effects are neither 50 or 100 years away, nor going to wait for the Earth’s temperature to rise another one or two degrees C (or F). They’re here already. And for that reason, we need to focus more on adaptation. Now.

— Stu Ostro

Former skeptics whose primary occupation is not climate science  don’t tend to follow the broad scientific literature closely.

The dichotomy between mitigation and adaptation is a false one, as  science adviser John Holdren likes to say.  The choice is between what mix of mitigation, adaptation, and misery we leave our children and grandchildren and  countless future generations.

Considerable adaptation is inevitable, as is considerable misery.  But if we don’t focus on mitigation, then future generations will face endless misery — and  the word “adaptation” will be rendered meaningless (see The lessons of Katrina: Global warming “adaptation” is a cruel euphemism “” and prevention is far, far cheaper).

Holdren understands, as Ostro does, that  we’re already experiencing dangerous impacts from human-caused warming.  But because Holdren understands the  extensive scientific literature on what we face if we don’t dramatically change our current emissions path, he told the NYT’s Revkin:

John P. Holdren, an energy and environment expert at Harvard and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, defended the more strident calls for limits on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

“I am one of those who believes that any reasonably comprehensive and up-to-date look at the evidence makes clear that civilization has already generated dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system,” Dr. Holdren said. “What keeps me going is my belief that there is still a chance of avoiding catastrophe.”

And that was back in January 2007 when the science was considerably less alarming than it is today — see An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water. Here is what we now understand we may very well face on our current emissions path:

And that makes massive prevention plus lots of adaptation much, much, much cheaper than not bloody much prevention and incomprehensible amounts of adaptation (and misery):

How exactly do Muscovites “adapt” to  the possibility of 20°F Arctic warming?  What would a 1000-year heat-wave look like in 2100 if the  planet is 9°F warmer?  How  exactly would the world adapt to see levels 4 to 6 feet high in 2100 and then rising 1 foot a decade?

When I get back from vacation I will do some longer posts on adaptation. For now, I’ll end with Time‘s Bryan Walsh’s from his post, “The Asian Floods””Signs of Climate Catastrophes to Come?

It’s all part of what Thomas Friedman has called “global weirding“””the weather gets strange and unpredictable, with the extremes getting more extreme. And unpredictability can kill””cities and countries are forced to deal with natural disasters on a scale they’ve never had to before, no longer able to look to the past for a reasonable expectation of what the future will be. We’ll need to get better at adapting to disasters””even poor countries can provide some protection, as Bangladesh has shown by fortifying itself against sea-level rise. But the heartbreaking Asian floods should be one more reminder of the need to put the world on a path to lower carbon emissions””before the weather reaches extremes that no one can handle.

24 Responses to The skeptics are sweating

  1. Peter Mizla says:

    Adaptation is the favorite word used by those who grudgingly ‘accept’ that ‘some warming’ is likely- but nothing we cannot adapt to.

    Most of these ‘former skeptics’ still only believe we will see a 2 degree C rise by centuries end.

  2. hapa says:

    mitigation IS adaptation… as sure as reality has you building seawalls it has you fixing up your houses, changing how your food is grown, making new transportation plans, and greening your electric grid.

  3. mike roddy says:

    Good piece by Ostro, as well as your follow up, thanks.

    The skeptics aren’t sweating, they’re trying to go back to the old reliables- Watts is reviving “The Hockey Stick Is Broken!” meme today. The reasoning is probably that if you repeat a lie often enough people will believe it, especially if it’s accompanied by McIntyre’s impenetrable and irrelevant statistical jargon.

  4. David says:

    I thought it was a pretty solid article… I think his point wasn’t that we shouldn’t mitigate, but rather that we should also place a greater focus on adapting to the changes that have already occurred. I think he made a good point that global warming is real and it’s already happening — it’s not something that’s 50 or 100 years away. Indeed, even if we were to completely eliminate greenhouse emissions, as Dr. Hansen has pointed out, we still have at least another degree of warming in the pipeline.

    As far as adaptations, I think some of these northern cities in places like Canada and Eurasia need to start implementing some of the practices that are common to more southern locations to offset the heat and prevent these large death tolls — these are locations that don’t have widespread A/C use. And given all of the record-breaking rainfall and flooding events, we need to upgrade our infrastructure to accommodate these types of deluges.

  5. Doug Bostrom says:

    Problems with oversimplifying adaptation problems aside (such as ignoring that 20,000,000 persons homeless in Pakistan thereby threatening the loss of a 10-year war is after all part of adaptation) I’m pretty impressed w/Ostro’s piece, which is a coherent and articulate explanation of why “wacky weather” is telling us an important message we can’t afford to ignore.

    Adaptation is not only houses on stilts, it’s death by cholera as well. Those we can’t afford to save will die early, “helping” to change our population distribution in way that’s better suited to a newly emerging climate. That’s not how we typically envision the improving arc of human progress. It’s incumbent on us to avoid this brutal style of adaptation by at least ceasing to twist the knife we’ve stuck in the atmosphere even if we can’t remove it.

  6. Brewster says:

    These stories of Deniers changing sides make me wonder…

    While this year has shook ’em up, for good reason, there is no doubt (in my mind at least) that 2011 will be cooler, and probably with less extremes as well, especially since La Nina is well on its way..

    How fast will they abandon ship and declare “Warming is Over!”?

  7. Duncan says:

    This is insane!

    How about some world level class action lawsuits against big corporations that peddle denial propaganda. This is not a joke. These companies are exchanging our children’s future to pad their own greedy pockets. Simply put, the corporations have declared war on free humans. Since the only way it seems to hurt them is with money, it’s time draw their blood. They believe that they have the right to hurt people in the name of the monetary system, then it is time to hurt the monetary system in the name of people.

    The idea is simple, take some of that money that we seem to be addicted to and invest it in the markets… but don’t invest to make money… invest to destroy. Invest to destabilize the markets. Invest to make those corporations as fearful as humans are. (Did anybody ever mention that money’s value is not actually tangible? Money’s value is based upon what some corporation or market says it’s worth. 10 years from now, I doubt you could pay me $1000 for an egg, but I’d be interested in a halves days work of farming for a meal or two. One is tangible, the other is not.)

    In the name of profits, corporations pollute the world. In the name of profits, corporations lie to the world. In the name of profits, corporations are killing the world. Whether it is wars for the arms-dealers, oil for the oil-barrens, media for the media-giants, it’s all based on deceiving people about the nature of money. The corporations are securing their future, whether it’s insane or not.

    Back to corporations and the path they HAVE to take. Think about this for a moment. Corporations CAN NOT take moral values into question. They MUST take the path to the best financial future. That future may rely on good P.R. but the bottom line is always the profits. Otherwise the shareholders will sue the board of directors and punish them.

    The only way to force a corporation to do something is with the dollar. The only way to hope to survive the currently described future is by planting a garden and building community, not by bailing out the financial institutes. Communities of people are what have built this world we live in, not buildings of money.

    Your big fat wallet doesn’t interest me… it’s the well worn work-gloves you always carry in your pocket that catches my eye.

    Do it because you want to improve and grow like a tall proud human, not die out like roaches on garbage in the dark!

    Hug your kids, look them in the eye, and remind them that you love them and are willing to fight for their future, because right now, I don’t think they believe us… and I wouldn’t either.

    Best of luck all.

  8. Robert says:

    Interesting comment on CNN debate

    Gavin and Economist Sachs say we have the technology and act now. Michaels says we should just wait to see if technologies come up…

    Fareed Zakaria “Mr. Michaels, is your research funded by oil companies?”

    Patrick Michaels-Not much of it

    Fareed “Mr. Michaels, how much of your research is funded by oil companies?”

    Michaels-I don’t know, 40%

  9. Bob Wallace says:

    Brewster – once someone has admitted to themselves that believing that the planet isn’t warming or that humans aren’t causing the warming is a faith-based position and the data says otherwise it should be very difficult for them to return to the Church of Everything is Fine.

    Feels to me like we’ve reached the disbelief/awareness tipping point.

    Publicize these conversion stories. Low-knowledge deniers have looked to these people who they view to be more intelligent and better informed as an affirmation that they, too, are correct in their denying. When their leaders change sides some of them are likely to open their minds a bit….

  10. fj2 says:

    re: ” . . . before the weather reaches extremes that no one can handle.”

    The scale of extreme weather events indicates that this condition exists to a certain extent now.

    Perhaps what is meant that the accelerating frequency of extreme weather events may soon completely prevent effective action indicating that civilization must go into survival mode of war-like urgency now: immediately.

  11. co2hound says:

    Great post!

    We are in a War on CO2.

    As with any war effort, see WW II era papers, the mass media has to place the war effort in readers’ faces every day, right on the front page.

    The masses must be engaged at an emotional level. We live in a democracy so plain folks have to be invigorated to do all the things we do in a democracy to effect changes.

    The tough part will be to keep the message fresh in perpetuity. This will be a project longer than the building of the great cathedrals of Europe which took generations of builders to construct. So long, multi-generational projects have been done before demonstrating that it is possible for people to stay focused on a project across generational boundaries.

    However, that being said, the problem is compounded by the fact that our enemy attacks in flurries so there will be lulls in the fighting that may last for enough time for people to forget about the war. I agree with Brewster above.

    So boiled down the problem is: getting the masses’ attention and once that is done, keeping the war in focus and fresh for generations of people to come.

    It’s a big job … but it’s a bigger problem.

  12. pete best says:

    Adaptation might be the former skeptics argument now because they still cannot see us doing something about it at the emissions level but plenty of technologies exist to mitigate the effects strategically but mainly cultural changes is the way we have to go. However asking the capatalist system to go local for everything is a hard pill to swallow and perhaps an impossible one.

  13. Colorado Bob says:

    What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof. – Christopher Hitchens

  14. Raul M. says:

    High profile people have relations with the public
    that go beyond the aspects of the intuitive child
    that is found being disrespectful or destructive to
    the parents or possessions.
    Those with children might see something in
    “Love You Forever” written by Robert Munsch
    illustrated by Sheila McGraw

  15. Doug Bostrom says:

    Robert says: August 15, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Interesting comment on CNN debate

    Anybody have a link to that?

  16. fj2 says:

    6. Brewster, ” . . . there is no doubt (in my mind at least) that 2011 will be cooler, and probably less extremes as well, especially since La Nina is well on its way . . . ”

    Not having the expertise, it still seems that accelerating environmental devastation will continue potentially with feedbacks very easily canceling out natural mitigating effects.

    It is not clear that there is anything in the models — including all the inputs — to elicit this level of predictive detailing.

    Most likely, this is the dreaded experiment that scientists have been describing where the science will ultimately depend on observation perhaps at best during short-lived periods of unstable equilibriums.

  17. Tom Bennion says:

    AGW Skeptics/deniers will jump from denial to “its not catastrophic – that was our real point all along” and also “lets adapt with geoengineering and as much nuclear power as we can build” in a heartbeat. Sigh.


  18. Doug Bostrom says:

    Peter Sinclair says:
    August 15, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    cnn interview with michaels


  19. Andy says:

    Wow! Pat Michaels has really changed his tune. Predictably.

    I don’t think I’ve seen so much BS spewed in a single interview before.

    Predictably, now that the oil funded skeptics are losing face with the public due to the evaporation of “climate gate”, BP’s disaster, and the earth’s decision to go postal on us this summer; they are turning to the old stand bys of: we need to wait on better technology, it won’t be all that bad, and the public won’t go along anyways so we all need to “just sit back and enjoy it” (Bill Clements – almost governor of Texas). All excuses used by Pat Michaels in his interview on CNN.

    But I also noticed that Andy Revkin is in agreement with this Michael’s quote – “Every time we predict an apocalypse and it doesn’t happen, it cheapens the issue.”

    Mr. Revkin interviews Dr. Andreas Muenchow who supplies the “cheapens the issue” quote here:

    to which Mr. Revkin heartily agrees.

    I noticed that Andy Revkin jumps on this and uses it as the theme of his blog entry; whereas Dr. Muenchow is simply stating that he can’t be sure the Petermen calving event is AGW caused because of a lack of water temperature data for that particular fiord. This is an obvious overstatement on Muenchow’s part as there is better temp data for other Greenland fiords with similarly accelerating glaciers and the issue of bottom melting of these floating glacial tongues has been well-covered in Science.

    Dr. Muenchow is upset because he doesn’t believe his research issue has recieved its fair share of funding and he’s making his case for more bucks. Dr. Muenchow further repeats this assertion (needs more research) even more forcefully in another interview which I’ve not been able to find again. As an environmental reporter Andy Revkin should be familiar with the literature and should know where Dr. Muenchow is coming from. But it fits his hypothesis that global warming won’t be so bad so he uses it without caution.

    The way Revkin and Michaels use the “cheapens the issue” idea is as a falsehood. That is they are telling the reader that no weather event or glacial calving or whatever can ever be viewed as a global warming signal. In other words they want the public to believe that we will never be able to touch and see global warming. That nothing we observe can be used to refute their – it won’t be so bad – idea.

  20. Steve Bloom says:

    It’s too bad Zakaria didn’t ask Michaels about funding from fossil fuel rather than just oil companies, as he is known to get a big chunk from coal companies.

  21. Prokaryotes says:

    Why shouldn’t conservatives believe in man-made climate change?

    There’s no reason why conservatives should be opposed to a particular scientific belief, and there’s absolutely every reason why conservatives should be in favour of protecting the environment. As Roger Scruton wrote, caring for environment appeals to our “love of country, of territory and love of that territory as home”. Conservatives are opposed to radical, upsetting change, and there can’t be one more radical or upsetting than a change in the earth’s climate.

  22. Uosdwis says:

    On CNN, Candy Crowley was slowly getting it, but spent a lot of time quibbling over how much sea rise. “Well, a few inches isn’t so bad, is it?” Completely missing the point that you will literally be gasping for breath long before sea level matters.

  23. dbmetzger says:

    Report Predicts More Extreme Heat
    The US space agency NASA says this year has been the warmest for the earth in 131 years. And a new study of hot weather in the US released by the National Wildlife Federation predicts that extreme heat will be the norm by 2050.