The Coming Storm

No, not that one. Or that one. I mean the literal one, this one, the first big winter storm of the season. Here is the situation as of this morning (map forecast for 8am ET Wednesday, the storm is the “L” off the Georgia Coast):

Winter storm forming over Southeastern US … GFS model of precipitation type and moisture transport.

Like hurricanes, winter storms have to have a mix of conditions come together to cause them to grow and evolve. The key to weather on the earth is the need to balance the warm, moist air from the tropics with the cold, dry air over the poles. This happens in a number of ways, but in the summer the most dramatic are of course hurricanes. In the winter, it’s nor’easters. A classic nor’easter starts out as a low pressure system just off the coast of the Southeast. It moves northeast along the coast, carrying with it the warm moist air of the Gulf of Mexico and Bahamas, pushing that air inland where it meets cold polar air. It is along that swath where the air masses collide that the potential problems for Humans comes in. The danger this morning lies Appalachians and western North Carolina where the precipitation may be in the form of freezing rain, as well as inland in Kentucky (on the map, the red/purple area). Here is what things should look like this evening around 7pm. Notice that the low is deeper (stronger), the blue moisture transport vectors are longer (stronger), and across the New York/Pennsylvania area snow will be falling. The zone of freezing rain will by then have shifted to western Virginia.

The situation tonight …

By tomorrow morning the Low should be more elongated and off the Massachusetts coast, still pumping moist, snow-laden are into the NorthEast. The storm should be off the Canadian Marine Provinces by Friday.

Thursday Night

In terms of impacts, again the big concern is the area where freezing rain and ice will be falling. For the Northeast, snow could be fairly deep in places – some forecasts are for up to 24″ – but it’s more likely to be disruptive rather than truly dangerous, and again conditions should clear out by this weekend. For the Deep South (GA/SC), this will be a rain event, even for North Georgia. As things continue to cool off with the approaching winter season, the risk for ice storms will move further south … but the impacts of this event will be in North Carolina and the NEUS. How should you prepare for winter storm season? Take a look at the FEMA/DHS Winter Storm page for tips …

So what’s the weather going to be on Thanksgiving?

This year people are more attuned to the weather – for good reason. Given COVID19, gatherings outdoors are far safer than inside, so the weather is a bigger factor than usual. I’m getting a lot more questions like “what’s the weather going to be like next St. Swizzen’s Day” – be it for a holiday, wedding, birthday gathering, protest march, golf game, or whatever. My usual reply is “I study disasters; if I can tell you then you probably don’t want to know” doesn’t make people happy 😛 Of course I’ve got the tools here to do pretty much any kind of forecast from “nowcasts” to climate, but how does the average person answer that question without annoying their favorite scientist/blogger? Which provider is best? As it turns out, that’s an easy question to answer. Your tax dollars have funded a really great organization, the US National Weather Service, and they have some nice on-line tools for planning your holiday. Virtually all the other providers – be it big companies, TV stations, whatever, are using NWS data and perhaps “adding value” (although in most cases I’d argue they are adding FUD, but that’s a different post). So lets walk through using the NWS web site to see what tools are available, and if you can hold that Thanksgiving gathering outside, or if everyone will have to stay home and use video …

The starting place is Here’s what the main page looks like. Any warnings will be color coded:

The map is clickable … click on the location you’re interested in; it doesn’t have to be perfect, you’ll get the chance to refine it. But for your home location, enter the place name you want in the box on the left. You can use a zip code or place name – for example, you can enter “Ardsley Park, Savannah, GA” and the system will give you matching names …

If you click “remember me” then whenever you go to your local forecast will pop up on the left side. Clicking “Get detailed information” and you will jump to the point location forecast … here’s where you can really get into seeing what is going on:

The page itself is a nice overview, but if I’ve got family coming over at 4pm Thursday, with dinner at 6pm, and people will probably start to go home at 8pm. How likely is it that we can eat outside at the picnic table, or will I have to set up tables all over the house inside, or just cancel? Jackets, build a fire in the fire pit, or Savannah being Savannah will we need bug spray? If you scroll down and look under the map on the right there is a box called “additional resources” …

Click the graph and you get the hourly forecast data.

You can change the date to see up to a week in the future; in this case let’s set the start point at 12am (midnight) on Thursday. Click submit and you get:

So for Ardsley Park area in Savannah, the temperature should be 70 degrees, light wind, 31% Cloud Cover. The precip chance is 18% – but if you look at the graph, it never gets above 20%, and drops to only 8% by 7pm, so chances are this is not a sharp rain producing weather system. Now that you’ve tagged this as your “remember me” location any time you to to on that device it will have your forecast on the main page – and you can easily get the very detailed details!

But what if you are travelling? Just click on the national map … it will take you to the forecast for that point. In this case, as noted on the first map I directly clicked on Andrews NC, then got the “additional details” to see the timing and intensity of any rain:

Looks like rain overnight Wednesday (80% chance at midnight!) and perhaps Thanksgiving morning, but will clear out and be nice overnight, with rain maybe coming back Friday night (back up to 30% chance) .

When planning an event, obviously the closer in time the better the forecast. By the time we’re within three days they are pretty good; 3 to 5 days are fair, over five days takes some interpretation. I’ll try to do some more posts on that in the future, but hopefully this will get you started …

Doomwatch 11 Sept 2020

Globally we have a lot going on, and several apocalyptic vistas to describe. Given the peak of hurricane season and eight systems being watched, several earthquakes, the fires in the Western US, Pandemic, and several unstable geopolitical hot spots trying to flare up, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re doomed. But, when you take them one by one and see what the actual risks are … ok, it doesn’t look great, but hopefully not as bad as you might think. Rather than worry about what might happen, let’s look at what is happening …

Bit busier than I like to see it … click any graphic to embiggen.

Tropics: Leaving aside the watch areas, there are three systems to be concerned about. In the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Paulette is increasingly a threat to Bermuda. Here are the National Hurricane Center’s Key Messages regarding Tropical Storm Paulette. The current forecast track takes the storm right over the island, but wobbles of 100 miles one way or the other will make a big difference and it’s still a ways out. But folks there should be in their initial preparation phases.

Paulette Damage Swath

The second thing to be aware of is there is a system in The Bahamas that will need watching this weekend and early next week. It will just dump rain on Florida, maybe some gusty winds in thunderstorms, but as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico some of the models are showing it becoming a tropical storm before impacting the northern Gulf coast (Louisiana). Tracking and forecasts are just ramping up on this one … but here is what the GFS looks like for Tuesday morning:

GFSForecast for 5am Tuesday Morning – possible weak tropical storm near Louisiana, the big storm off of the east coast is Paulette; Rene is the weak thing on the right.

Rene is weakening and while it may recover some, it’s not heading towards any land anyway. There is a strong system that just moved off the coast of Africa. Models show it becoming a storm in the next few days, and heading towards the Caribbean. Too early to worry about it. There are two systems just off the coast of Mexico – both are likely to stay offshore. Longer term I’m sure that there will be angst over the strong system that has emerged from Africa. The GFS shows a very powerful storm moving near The Bahamas in 10 days – here is the forecast for Monday the 21st:

IGNORE THIS! Yes, dramatic scary picture, BUT it is a long range forecast with very little skill!

You’ll probably start to see more scary graphics like the above, and people talking about the ECMRWF and GFS model runs out 10 to 14 days. Ignore them – there is very little skill that far out. Don’t worry until the official forecasts start, and then only the five day forecasts have enough skill to act on.

And then there’s this …

Lots of rusty tanks of radioactive water. Insert large dinosaur-like creature joke here. Or not – it isn’t really funny.

The third system to watch is the potential for a tropical storm to form in the Western Pacific and impact Japan in a few days. It shouldn’t cause too many problems aside from rain, and the chance some of those highly radioactive waste water storage tanks at Fukushima will leak or even catastrophically fail. There are over 1000 tanks on site, some now approaching a decade old. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and nobody really knows what to do about it …

Earthquakes: There was a pretty strong earthquake in Chile about 3:30am this morning, part of a series rumbling the country recently. Power outages and light damage have been reported but so far no reports of injuries. Impacts in the low millions of USD if that.

Wildfires: For those watching the fires in the Western US, the CalFire incident site is a great resource. In addition to the fires themselves, the epic smoke is causing air quality impacts across the entire region. Large areas in Oregon are being evacuated and otherwise put on alert. This is worth a separate post and analysis … will try to do that at some point.

CalFire Incident Map

Pandemic: At first glance it would seem things in the US are getting better, but if you look at testing data and the deeper statistics this is likely the calm before the fall/winter storm. Will be doing a longer post on this. As it has been for a couple of months now, we are still in a “slow burn” phase rather than a crisis. Same advice as before – mask up when in public spaces, good hygiene, and while I’m normally a bit ambivalent about flu shots outside high risk groups for a lot of technical reasons, this year I think it’s a good idea for everyone who can get one to do it.

Geopolitics: Hard to know where to start – Belarus, the Eastern Mediterranean has multiple hot spots just waiting to flare up (Greece vs. Turkey, various players in Syria, Lebanon), not to mention Asia (PDRK, South China Sea, India/Pakistan/China, etc.), lots related to Russia (Navalny, hacking/interference allegations, etc). Any one of those would be worthy of a full blown doomwatch post. The stress that the pandemic has put on political and economic systems is extreme, and likely to be expressed in conflicts. Scary stuff, any could spiral out of control. But … much of the coverage of these various conflicts that does leak into the US media obsession with internal US politics is a bit overheated.

So on that note … just remember that there are always potential disasters out there and it can easily be overwhelming and depressing if you let it. Do what you can about the direct threats and don’t worry about the rest. The TL;DR today is: Bermuda needs to watch Paulette. Florida and the Gulf needs to watch the system moving in to Florida and be prepared for a tropical storm late this weekend/early next week. The west is on fire – be aware of rapidly changing conditions; those out there need to be ready to evacuate quickly, so be ready. Wear your (colorful language) mask outside your bubble, and otherwise try to enjoy life this weekend!

You Got The Fire Down Below …

The fires out west are epic – you can actually see the flames from the GOES satellite in geosynchronous orbit, 22,236 miles up … here is the color view:

Click to embiggen and animate …

Here is a static view zoomed in a bit:

Yes, those red patches are actually fire!

These fires, and their impacts, are a wicked combination of short term weather patterns, human development and “management” practices, the natural order of things (fires are a normal way nature cleans out the brush; some plants and animals that depend on them actually need periodic fires to survive), and probably a bit of climate change thrown in. Either way, it’s spectacular (in a bad way if you live out there).

The US and International Law and Conventions

A lot of people are incensed with the Trump administration’s announcement of the formal withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accords (the latest agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).  These discussions are of course largely set within the internal domestic sound-bite wars that define modern US Politics. Republicans are applauding getting out of an agreement they contend would hobble the US economy and transfer wealth to foreign governments over the “fake” issue of climate change.  While some Democrats such Elizabeth Warren are noting the environmental and economic impacts, the response from other Democrats is emphasizing the disengagement from the treaty itself.  Bernie Sanders called  the President an “international embarrassment,”  and Biden tweeted “Trump continues to abandon science and our international leadership.”  Former Obama SECSTATE Kerry and SECDEF Hagel (technically Hagel is/was a Republican) have an op-ed in the Washington Post that emphasizes the disengagement from the international community as a central theme.

I won’t rant again about climate change and the UNFCCC, you can click here and read my views in another post.  In short, human impacts on the global climate system are increasingly serious and we’ve got to do something about it, but the present process and ideas on the table are utterly broken.  So while withdrawal is a bad idea, I don’t think the US pullout is going to make things worse because the Paris Accords and measures the Obama Administration committed to weren’t going to do much good anyway.  What concerns me here is how this is yet another example of the US undermining the entire framework of international law, norms, and conventions since the end of the Cold War.  This trend spans administrations and political parties.  At least the Trump Republicans are somewhat honest about it: they make their disdain for multilateral treaties clear, and have withdrawn from numerous agreements having much more direct consequences than the Paris Accords, such as the INF treaty, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP, NAFTA, and at least three other UN conventions/organizations (UNESCO, UNHRC, and UNRWA).  But Democratic Administrations (as well as prior Republican ones) have done tremendous damage to these organizations, and for individuals like Kerry and Hagel to whine about Trump’s actions is rank hypocrisy.

I have been involved with the technical operations of various international treaty organizations within the United Nations and Organization of American States for a bit over 25 years.  It’s a complex, frustrating, politically and technically complex world that at its worst is a monumental waste of time and money, but when it works (which is far more often than the critics would have you believe) it helps literally billions of people and makes the world a better place.  It requires a huge amount of patience and humility, and a willingness to compromise. Yes, you must keep America’s interests in mind, and there is nothing wrong with holding to reasonable lines that cannot be crossed, but one of those key interests is the long term stability of the complex system of international law, treaties, norms and conventions.  And that means sometimes you just can’t have everything your way, and you have to recognize that other countries also have legitimate concerns and interests.  But since the early 1990’s, the US has abandoned those concepts.  It views itself as “the Indispensable Nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future …” (per Madeleine Albright, the Clinton Administration Secretary of State from 1997-2001).  It feels “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.” (Dick Cheney, SECDEF in the 1990’s and VP under George W Bush). Time after time the US has not followed international law, intervening illegally in other countries, undermining treaty organizations, and acting as it likes simply because it has the military and economic power to get its way in matters great and small, pushing for its own position even in areas that are of little impact to vital US interests.  Compromise just isn’t in the US Diplomatic vocabulary any more.

After the GW Bush administration, many in the international community were hopeful that the US would re-engage the world on a more collaborative basis.  They were bitterly disappointed at subsequent Obama administration actions under Clinton and Kerry.  Given his pre-election rhetoric, there were no expectations of Trump.  He may be the last straw, but the loss of US prestige and influence in foreign affairs was a long time coming.  Eastern Europe and the Middle East are obvious failures, but in other areas less well known to the US public such as Central America, Africa, and Asia, the US has been playing a hypocritical game: flouting international law and treaties, all the while insisting other countries scrupulously comply with US interpretations.  You can’t have it both ways: to insist on rules, but violate it them when you don’t like having to follow them.

For the first 50 years after the Second World War, America was a leader in trying to create a stable framework of international relations. Over the last 25 years it has squandered that role. I hope the next Administration takes a long hard look at our Foreign Policy from first principles, and doesn’t just react to perceived flaws in the Trump administration’s term, because the problems run much deeper than that.

I close with a recent quote that sadly captures the current situation …

Washington’s daily display of contempt for other sovereign States has become the painstaking, mundane work of the U.S. state Department and the President. This policy has led to a virtual loss of competence in world decision-making, and the United States of America is perceived by fewer and fewer countries as a world leader, because the main feature of a leader is justice.

Washington has lost its bearings, who are friends and who are enemies … Washington is not able to reach a consensus, but uses blackmail and threats in its Arsenal of “diplomacy”.

It is impossible to build world politics and the future of our planet on the interests of only one state. I hope this will soon be understood by all the countries of our beautiful Earth.

— N. V. Poklonskaya


NOAA’s Atlantic Hurricane Season Update

Last week the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released an updated seasonal forecast, and due to the waning El Nino has increased their forecast for the number of storms expected this year, now saying there is an increased chance for an “above average” season.  What does that mean to you, the huddled masses cowering in fear along the shoreline, waiting for your inevitable doom?

Exactly nothing (assuming you have a hurricane plan already, which you should no matter what the seasonal forecast says).

First, even if you knew *exactly* how many storms were going to form in a year, it tells you nothing about how bad the season will be.  There have been above average years in raw numbers with no hurricane landfalls.  1992 was a below average year – well, except for Hurricane Andrew.  So unless you know where they are going to go, even one hurricane can ruin your day, and 20 can be no big deal if they are all fish storms.

Second, the numbers used to compute the averages are becoming more and more suspect.  This year’s “hurricane” Barry more than likely would not have been classified as a hurricane in past years for a number of reasons (before anyone yelps, no, this isn’t part of the Vast Global Warming Conspiracy(tm), it’s because of better observation systems that can see small patches of possible hurricane force winds, and different classification criteria).

I really don’t like the hype around seasonal forecasts and their updates.  Dr. Mark Johnson of UCF and I used to do them (including something NOAA doesn’t do, landfall probabilities), but the media circus and subsequent fear mongering were just a bit too much.  We still generate them, and they have decent enough skill, but they aren’t really “actionable” except for narrow applications.  About the only thing they are good from a public safety standpoint is “awareness,” but there are other ways of doing that than shoveling out the statistical stables …

So if you haven’t put together a plan yet, slap yourself and go to visit the FEMA web site and get some checklists to think about, consult your local EMA for risk maps for your risk of flooding (which is by far the major threat to life; the golden rule is shelter from wind, evacuate from water), and put together a plan.  Then don’t worry about it.

Climate, Computers, and Clay Tablets

R. Borger’s “Mesopotamishes Zeichenlexikon” (the definitive index of Cuneiform), A.R. George’s “The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic”, a high-res print of the Atrahasis tablet (courtesy of the British Museum) and my computer cluster “PsiCorps” running a climate simulation.

Twenty thousand years ago the Earth was a very different place. Ice, in some places over a mile thick, covered large areas of the world. With a vast amount of water locked in the ice caps and glaciers, sea level was 300 feet or more lower than what it is today. In this alien landscape our ancestors lived, clustered then as now along rivers and near the ocean shoreline. But their world was changing.

By 12 thousand years ago the earth was warming, and the great ice sheets were melting. Sea levels started to rise, and rivers overflowed their banks. Areas populated for generations were quickly covered by the sea. In some places, huge lakes formed behind great dams of ice. When these dams ruptured, unimaginable floods swept the land with walls of water hundreds and even thousands of feet high moving down the river valleys, scouring the landscape at 80 mph or more. To the mesolithic humans who witnessed these events, it must have seemed that the entire world was being destroyed by great floods. For thousands of years after the glaciers retreated, perhaps as recently as 5000 years ago, less spectacular but locally devastating floods occurred as the earth’s hydrology and geology adjusted to the new climate regime. And even after that great floods occasionally swept more limited areas, much as they do today.

Our ancestors did not know about “normal” extreme weather, much less Milankovitch cycles, plate tectonics, or changes in the thermohaline circulation. They struggled to understand what happened, and as the centuries went by, the stories of the great floods were told and retold, passed down by an oral tradition that modern ears can scarcely appreciate. Some saw the floods as divine punishment directed at man, others as a great battle between the gods in which man was simply caught in the crossfire. Given the enormous destruction, it was assumed that those who survived must have had the favor of the gods. As time went by civilizations rose and fell, and the stories were adapted to fit the politics and beliefs of the times. But the core stories of a great Deluge were preserved, and events that were separated in space and time were merged between various cultures.

In the region we call Mesopotamia there was a story of a man named Atra-Hasis receiving a warning from the gods to build a great boat and save his people from the Deluge. Eventually another story was told of an arrogant young leader who struggled with the questions of life and death. It was an epic story of maturity, kingship, and the search for understanding, and seems to have been based on a real king. At some point it incorporated the tale of Atrahasis as the man the king Bilgamas sought at the end of his journey. Around 3000 BC, scribes began using the new technology of writing to preserve the stories, using a script we now call cuneiform. Over time the language changed a little, the story was fine tuned, but the story of Gilgamesh, and his maturity from despotic ruler to Great King was preserved. And on Tablet XI of the Epic was the story of his meeting with Ut-napishti (as Atrahasis was then known) and hearing of the great deluge; perhaps a lingering memory of the catastrophic flood events thousands of years earlier.

Other cultures also preserved memories of great floods, either directly or indirectly. The small kingdom of Judah was conqured by the Babylonians, and as was their custom, the royal families and priests of Judah were sent into exile elsewhere in Babylonian lands. The exiled priests eventually incorporated Babylonian stories of the creation of man, and of Ut-napishti and his great boat, in their own stories of creation, survival, and founding of their nation. But rather than being simply the interplay of many gods in which Man was a pawn, they placed these stories within the context of the revelation that there was only one God, and it was that God who guided human history in general and their destiny in particular. Thus a new religion, Judeaism, took form. With the coming of the Roman empire 500 years later, the Akkadian language, cuneiform, and the stories of Gligamesh were slowly forgotten. But the tale of Ut-napishti, now called Noah, lived on in the Torah and became part of the traditions of a new religion, Christianity. Eventually the story was absorbed into another religion also founded in the region, Islam. And so the stories lived on.

By the 1800′s the science of archeology was born, and long lost civilizations were rediscovered. Tablets containing what is now called the “standard version” of the Gilgamesh text had been found by Austen Henry Layard in 1849 in the city of Nineveh. The Epic was rediscovered and publisized by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. Linguists and archeologists eventually recovered much of the ancient languages of Assyerian, Sumerian, and Babylonian. Over time more and more fragments were found, and much of the original poem has been restored along with earlier versions of the stories that comprise it.

So we reach the present day. In my office are banks of computers making billions of complex calculations every second, analyzing the climate of past years and projecting the climate of years yet to come. This work is in the hope that unlike our ancestors, we can shape our future rather than simply react to events beyond our understanding. While monitoring calculations in an analysis of historical rainfall patterns, I have been slowly working my way through the Epic of Gilgamesh and how it came down to us. I am struck that here at the leading edge of human technology, surrounded by devices our ancestors would have called magic, I am able to study copies of 4000 year old clay tablets that in their own way record past climate changes, stories there were passed down from my ancestors over the course of thousands years. Thus the human effort to understand and find meaning in our world continues. It is truly awe inspiring to consider that incredible journey, and humbling to contemplate my very small part in moving it forward.

The story of how we got where we are is remarkable. The above brief summary is based on over two centuries of accumulated research in sciences like geophysics and archeology, and one that probably isn’t too far from the “truth”. The only significant speculation is if the stories of a Great Flood that many cultures share trace all the way back to the dramatic environmental shifts that happened at the end of the last glacial epoch, or more “recent”, disconnected regional events (of which there have been many). I suspect some of the stories might go all the way back to the great post-glacial floods, but even if not, they still represent the human need to understand the past and explain how, and why, events happen. Oh, and if you’re curious, solving complex four dimensional equations is easy; reading Babylonian cuneiform tablets, now that’s hard, especially since most of the scholarly publications are in German!

PS – I just returned from two weeks in Iceland, and will be posting about that and the upcoming hurricane season.  This was a post on my old blog, but I think is still timely and reflects what it’s like to do this kind of research.

Big City Nights

I love flying at night.  The air is generally smoother, traffic is lighter and Air Traffic Control is less frantic even around busy air space.  Over the years (I got my pilot’s license in 1996) the changes in nighttime lighting over time have been fascinating.  Of course, development and suburban sprawl across the southeastern US (where I do much of my flying) means that stretches of darkness are fewer and fewer.  Military bases/restricted areas such as the Savannah River Site, parks, and wetlands stand out.   But there is another significant change over the last decade.  A major shift in outdoor lighting is the development and deployment of high intensity LED lights.  These lights are both brighter and on different wavelengths (colors) than the old sodium vapor lights.  This shot over Augusta, Georgia (taken Feb 9th, 2019 from 7000 feet) very clearly shows the older orange/yellow lights versus the newer, white LED lights.  While we tend not to think about it, this is one of the many ways human activities have rapidly altered the natural world.  This study published in PNAS discusses how these lights have adversely impacted bird migration patterns.  Other studies have shown impacts on insects, bats, and animals.  There are also impacts on the animals who made these things – Humans.  Human sleep patterns have also been altered by both nighttime city lighting as well as the proliferation of LED screens such as smartphones and iPads.  The bright blue light given off by these devices triggers a brain response that can distort sleep patterns.

But doesn’t night lighting improve traffic safety and prevent crime?  Maybe not – the studies are somewhat contradictory, and many studies suffer from abysmal statistical methodologies, as well as being somewhat tainted by their sponsorship by industries that profit from lighting.  Some well structured studies such as this one in England show that nighttime lighting doesn’t do anything to reduce crime or accident rates.  But this is an area ripe for serious research.

So what does this have to do with climate?  It shows how something that seems as simple as putting up a street light can have cascading impacts across the human and natural world.  The simple fact is that human activities do alter the environment.  Classifying these alterations as positive or negative, and then evaluating if those with negative aspects are worth doing from a benefit cost standpoint are value judgements that require solid, unbiased science to inform those decisions.  And this intersection between science and public policy is a place many scientists are reluctant to get involved with as it means dealing with politicians.  The political process speaks an entirely different language, and uses metrics that are utterly alien and irrational in many ways.  It’s probably the least fun thing I do, even though, in the end, it is the part of the work that can have the most impact.

Oh, and speaking of Big City Nights here are the Scorpions and the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Some thoughts on Climate Change

A lot of people have generated a lot of words about the topic of climate change. An awful lot of them really probably shouldn’t because they don’t really know what they are talking about, and all they are doing is spreading misinformation (even if well intentioned) and/or further inflaming an already politically charged debate. Unfortunately, even some people who do know what they are talking about sometimes go beyond their areas of competence and, more importantly, convolve science, policy, and politics.  This is a long post, sorry about that, but complex subjects require thoughtful discussions, and short posts can’t cover the topic. Even this is abbreviated to the point of oversimplification. It is a sad commentary on our society that nuanced discussions are virtually impossible in social media, yet that is increasingly how views are expressed.  Even 24 hour “news” outlets tend to focus on short, sound-byte driven coverage.  But enough whining.

So why am I writing this, and why should you care what I think? A bit of background first … I’ve been involved in climate change research and policy since the mid 1990’s.  I participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change RA4, and was invited by both Republican (Bush 43) and Democrat (Obama) administrations to be on the US committee.  I declined both of those invitations, because I was uncomfortable with the political nature and overtones of that process, and preferred to remain in the international realm and not be overly associated with a single government’s viewpoints or policies.  That is not to criticize those who are on the US committee, but I must say was not alone in being uncomfortable with how the US conducts its process, and some pretty prominent scientists have quietly declined to participate in it.  This leads me to my first point.  The IPCC and individual government processes to study climate change were in theory a good idea, but got off track as they have moved further away from science into policy.  There are essentially three aspects to the climate change issues (or any technical issue for that matter):

  1. What are the facts?  In this case, is the climate doing, why is it doing it, and what is it likely to do in the future?
  2. What are the implications and impacts?  In other words, what are the potential impacts of any climate changes?
  3. Given the impacts, what (if anything) do we need to do about it, based on the causes?

(1) and (2) are essentially only science.  What you believe, your politics, your religion, have nothing to do with it.  It’s not simple, but it’s just data and the laws of physics and probability.  The third, on the other hand, is mostly politics.  Sure, science, engineering, and economics will tell you if the policies you want to propose are rational, or will do anything about causes and effects, but ultimately it is a policy question, and that’s a political question that (hopefully) is informed by the science.

In my not so humble opinion, one key problem is the current system tries to do all three in a single process. And that’s a Bad Thing.  Because climate is such a complex and technical issue, and because some scientists have not kept these three things separate, politicians and those who think in political terms have attacked the science because they no longer see it as science, but just another political tactic associated with an agenda. Lets be clear here: I could design a response to the worst projections regarding climate change that would make the ghost of Adam Smith write a new chapter in Wealth of Nations singing its praises, or Zombie Lenin to burst out of the mausoleum and cry Отлично! in the heart of Red Square.  Another key problem is that because the “left” (in quotes, there are no real leftist or liberal movements in the US, but that’s another discussion) has fully taken up the cause because if fits with their worldview, and allows many of their agenda points to be pressed under the rubric of “doing something” even if those things wouldn’t really do much about the underlying problem.  Likewise, much of the opposition on the “right” (and again, in the US, there are no politically conservative movements in the US) is based more on a reaction to the policy proposals of the “left”, and the false concept that anthropogenic climate change is a fake issue to promote those policies.

But I get ahead of myself.  Let’s take the three aspects above in sequence.  First, what are the facts?  While the technical details are complex, it’s really fairly simple.  Humans have in an extremely short time (geologically speaking) radically altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, as well as the surface of the Earth.  These changes must, by the very nature of the Earth’s climate system, result in changes from historical weather and climate patterns because the system is interactive.  That’s the theory, and the theory is backed up by observations at the local level, going back to studies at the turn of the *last* century (late 1800’s) that rain patterns east of Paris began to depend on the day of the week, due to the dust churned up by the city. This is backed up by modern studies (PDF).  At the planetary level, changes are harder to detect, but are also becoming increasingly evident.  So while the details are complex, don’t be drawn in debates over minutia.  While there are scientists that have legitimate, credible concerns about various technical issues like cloud depiction in models, or sensor changes over time (I’m among those who feel tropical cyclone intensity changes are not within the ability of the quality of our historical data to detect), these concerns do not compromise the overarching conclusion:  human activities are causing ahistorical, “unnatural” changes both weather and climate, and those changes are increasing.  It is wrong of activists on the “left” to trash scientists with concerns (I’ve actually been called a “Climate Denier” because I expressed concerns over the hurricane data – and I’m a long time advocate of “doing something that works” on this issue!), just as it is wrong for those on the “right” to attack scientists from the other perspective.  Have no doubt: the science is never perfect, but it is solid, and actionable.

So, what about those impacts (aspect number 2).  That is a bit fuzzier, but again the data says there is a problem, and it is getting worse.   We are already seeing significant changes in agriculture, animal migration patterns, disease outbreaks, and a myriad of other indicators.  Note these reinforce point one, and show that this isn’t just a small group of climate specialists – multiple fields are seeing impacts.  So the second aspect is also clear: while exact nature of these impacts is somewhat fuzzy, the best science indicates that there are and will be increasingly negative impacts for both humans and the natural world.

OK, what to we do (aspect 3).  As noted above here is where things have broken down, largely because the politics (which should have been confined to policy decisions) has infected the science.  Much of the climate debate is focused on the IPCC and their periodic reports.  The problem is that this is a fundamentally political process.  The IPCC does not do original research.  It simply periodically compiles and synthesizes the latest research into a comprehensive report.  The problem is that process ultimately goes through review by the political levels of the participant governments.  Then it ends up in what is called a COP, or more formally, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The 24th such meeting is in progress in Katowice, Poland as I write this.  The current meetings (Sunday, 9 December 2018) have broken down over whether the phrase “welcome” or “takes note” will be used to receive the latest IPCC report. Yeah, seriously, that’s the hang up, although of course that’s just the excuse being used by some parties to sabotage the process.  Rather that let the process work by receiving a technical report (albeit one already tinged by politics), some national governments are using the process to avoid discussing the implications of the report on bogus grounds.  It’s insanity, but it’s the way things work.  But, to be honest, the IPCC/COP process has never worked.  The various agreements as agreed never had any chance of actually doing anything about climate change anyway.  Too many secondary issues involving wealth transfer from first to third world, economics, and so forth became convolved in trying to fix the problem at hand.

How do we fix this broken process?  As “long” as this post is, that would take a lot longer to even begin to discuss.  The first thing is to get the national governments out of the review process for the IPCC technical reports, and disconnect the policy creation process from the technical assessment process at both the national and intergovernmental levels.  People on the “right” need to realize that while the “left” may have been the first to jump on the bandwagon, and push their “solutions” (that, naturally, also address their worldview), there are a lot of options to address the problem, some of which would actually work, and give the average “progressive leftist” a serious case of hives.  Things like nuclear power, or free market approaches to energy production/distribution (the current system isn’t anything approaching a free market).  Another significant problem, especially here in the US, is the fact that some have confused religion into this.  I don’t separate in this discussion politics and religion, mostly because here in the US the two are somewhat inseparable since everything in this benighted land becomes about the two party political system.  But an unfortunate (and incorrect) view has developed particularly in the US that science in general and environmental and biological science in particular are “anti-Christian” in some way.  Again, long discussion involving theology as much as science.  But this also highlights another complex aspect of the problem.  People on the “left” or “right”, or “Christian” vs “Atheist” really don’t understand each other, and don’t communicate.  And it seems like they are more eager to score points and demonize the other than acknowledge the complexity of the discussion, take the time to understand why people hold the views they do, and reach some conclusion based on neutral facts that can be mutually agreed on.

The bottom line is that the climate issue highlights many of the flaws that are inherent in the present system of human governance and decision making at the national and nation-state level.  In the US, it highlights the dysfunctional nature of the media, educational system, and political party systems in particular.   I’m a scientist, not a politician, and I don’t have any good ideas on how to fix the process so that we can address issues like Climate Change in a way that has any hope of working.  But I know for sure we are headed for some really bad times ahead if we don’t.  It’s a pretty planet, with amazing places and wonderful people.  Let’s figure out a way to not screw it up …