Why #climate change isn’t the problem.

With the COP26 meetings starting today, lots of angst will be generated about the state of Earth’s climate system and human impacts. Although this post talks a lot about climate, it may surprise you that at this point I’m not really “worried” about it; like the pandemic, at this point I’m much more worried about how badly world leaders are screwing up the response. By far the greatest threat to humanity is our flawed system of governance and, in particular, the collapse of the US as a superpower. That is a much more immediate threat to the planet than the most likely climate change scenarios. So you’re still doomed, just not because of anthropogenic climate change. Here’s why …

What clouds might look like …

If you’re not familiar with my background and position on all this, you might want to start by reading a couple of previous posts. If you’re too impatient to do that, I’d gently point out that this is a very complex subject that involves politics, economics, engineering, and science, and you’re going to have to work to create an informed opinion. The climate problem isn’t an existential crisis, but it isn’t a hoax either. Be very careful of hand waving and simplistic points of view that exist in sound bites. As for my background and views …

The post in that last link discussed things from the perspective of COP25 and the US withdrawal under Trump, but Democrats often are equally problematic, and so far the Biden Administration has followed the destructive trends of prior (pre-Trump) administrations such as Obama, Bush II, and Clinton. I’ll add that the current US positions in most international organizations are (as always) more about internal US politics than the actual global problem. But that would be another long blog post.

With respect to the science, our understanding continues to improve. There is no doubt humans are altering our climate system. But the key is what is going to happen in the future; that will drive, in part, our solutions. The future scenarios used by the IPCC and echoed by decision makers and activists are weighted towards more extreme carbon production and economic activity than is possible given resource and growth limitations. That is a complex issue, but it’s not likely that most of the scenarios (“Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” or SSP’s) are even possible; they are certainly not likely for the medium to distant future (50-100 years). We know the models “run hot,” so that is another potential bias. Forming policy around extreme scenarios is always dangerous, especially when based on modeling. Some of the better performing configurations with respect to history combined with reasonable scenarios do not forecast nearly the severe outcomes that are being repeated and promoted by advocates for radical action on climate (not that they don’t forecast Bad Things, just not Horrific Things). So I’m increasingly skeptical about the more extreme outcomes.

Cloud microphysics is a vital component of climate modeling. Here at the top of the cloud, where water droplets, ice crystals, sunlight and clear sky meet are extremely important and complex small scale processes that have to be parameterized since they can’t be simulated from first principles. Small changes in these assumptions and models can cause huge swings in predicted temperatures.

This weighting towards extreme scenarios has a toxic effect on any attempts to do something about the real problem. First, it opens the door to both healthy skepticism and unhealthy dismissal of the reality of the problem as ideological. Second, it pushes potential solutions away from those that are practical and less disruptive towards more radical and harmful economically actions, which is therefore unacceptable to the majority of people and countries. But it fits in well with the current mode of human governance, where in order to get anything done, it has to be a “crisis,” and somebody (preferably the existing oligarchs) need to profit.

To be clear, we have and continue to alter the earth’s climate system, and we need to stop it. But I don’t think the climate problem is a “crisis” or “emergency” that requires (or is even amenable) to radical immediate action in and of itself – especially if those actions are themselves not sustainable or risk destabilizing societies and economies. It is intimately entangled with politics, economics, and therefore lifestyle. Solving these interrelated aspects will take long range, multidecadal, multilateral, consistent and careful action (action that should have started 20 years ago). Unfortunately, that kind of planning and action is impossible in the US political system which is incapable of looking beyond the two year election cycle in the House of Representatives. And if it is impossible in the US, it is even more impossible globally given the fact that the US is so vital to the global system of governance, and the dis-functionality of the US political system means that humanity itself is at risk, in part from climate, but more so from geopolitical instability and the threat of global war, including something we thought left in the 1960’s but is now more likely than ever, nuclear war.

In the US, “solutions” to problems often boil down to two competing narratives believed with almost religious fervor by the bases of each party, neither of which is true, and more often than not neither of which will actually solve the problem. So climate change is either Crisis or Hoax. The political objective is the next election cycle – and the “news” media is an enabler because they profit from that system, and horse race reporting with two sides yelling at each other is easier than trying to explain cloud microphysics. Social media didn’t start this, but it is making things worse. So an emotionally driven deeply split and angry electorate with mutually exclusive policy positions are the “optimal” way to win election cycles and keep ratings high. But they make it nearly impossible to govern. And policy radically swings depending on who is better able to scare the fraction of the electorate that changes sides from year to year, and is thus able to seize power. This is catastrophic since almost all of the problems we face require a consistent approach measured in years or decades, not election cycles. Even if the Biden Administration had policies that would work (TLDR: they don’t), it wouldn’t matter: the political pendulum will likely swing, and they will be scuttled, just as the Trump Administrations policies (also bad) are being scuttled.

To sum up, just like what happened last year with the pandemic, any estimates I might make as a scientist about the potential impacts of climate change will more than likely be totally swamped by the impacts of the horrible decisions and policies implemented by human leaders, based on short term thinking, lack of understanding of the complex technical issues, and their greedy and narcissistic values based on gaining and holding power.

#Sam, and #Teresa – ¿Esa hembra es mala? No, not this one.

If you’re a fan of Mexican Telenovelas (my wife watches them to practice Spanish) you’ll probably recognize the theme song to the series “Teresa”, and I can’t hear that name without the song getting stuck in my head. Teresa is pretty bad (mala), but her tropical storm namesake this year isn’t. In fact, by the time you read this she will might well have broken up. In any event, Teresa is just offshore the US, and there are no watches or warnings. Sam on the other hand is almost a major hurricane, and should continue to gain some strength. But as expected, it should miss the Leeward Islands, and all of the major track models agree with it turning to the north, with the ECM right over Bermuda, and GFS well to the east, so they might have something to worry about late next week. Here’s the respective swaths of doom for the next five days:

click to embiggen.

Teresa raises a point to remember when at the end of the season people start taking about the number of storms. Teresa is the ninth short lived, structurally marginal storm that in past years might well not have been named or tracked. If we are generous and say two or three would have been counted, then this year doesn’t look so bad (12 or 13 named storms rather than 19). Again, that is a testament to improved monitoring, and partly due to changes that allow/encourage NHC to track hybrid systems that don’t exactly fit the tropical cyclone definition (which is important due to the explosive growth in vulnerable coastal areas over the last few decades). So while climate change is very real, and how storm frequencies and intensities are changing is a subject of intense study right now, the raw numbers game can be misleading. In this case, the hype is wrong – but the underlying truth of anthropogenic climate change is all too real.

#Tennessee #Flooding; #Henri

There was record-breaking rain event in Tennessee over the weekend, killing at least 22 and several dozen still missing (AP Article). Here is the Multi-Radar Multi-Sensor (MRMS) rain accumulation …

Click to embiggen. White area is over 12″, most of which fell in a few hours.

The point gauge readings are epic; the previous record was nine inches, so this event nearly doubled that total:

OUS44 KOHX 230839
PNSOHX
TNZ005>011-023>034-056>066-075-077>080-093>095-232045-

PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NASHVILLE TN
339 AM CDT MON AUG 23 2021

...KNOWN RAINFALL TOTALS FROM SATURDAY'S HISTORIC FLOOD...

CENTERVILLE 9.5 N...17.26" (COCORAHS) 
MCEWEN..............17.02" (CO-OP) 
DICKSON 6.3 WSW.....13.76" (COCORAHS) 
CENTERVILLE 2 N.....10.71" (CO-OP) 
DICKSON 12.7 NW......9.79" (COCORAHS) 
CENTERVILLE..........9.72" (CO-OP) 
BON AQUA 3.0 ESE.....8.29" (COCORAHS) 
DICKSON AIRPORT......8.17" (AWOS) 
VANLEER..............7.99" (COCORAHS) 
BURNS................5.28" (RAWS) 
ELLIS MILLS..........5.14" (CO-OP)

$$

This rain resulted from a series of storms “training” – one after another passing over the same area. Due to the current circulations over the US, a lot of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico has been pushed up into the southeast, and the available water to fuel these storms has been at historical highs. Articles such as the AP story cited above almost always mention climate change in every extreme weather event any more. The problem is that it is difficult to ascribe any specific event to anthropogenic (human caused) climate change. However, we are seeing patterns – as predicted by the models – that reinforce the other data that we are seeing evidence of a changing atmosphere. And, yes, it’s largely cause by human activities that have changed the surface characteristics of the earth, and chemical composition of the atmosphere. What should we do? That’s a very messy question, and so far none of the proposals on the table have any realistic hope of changing the course we are on. And that’s a different post.

In the tropical realm, Henri is now a tropical depression, and is dumping rain across New Jersey this morning, with some risk of flash floods in areas vulnerable to that sort of thing. Damage seems relatively light, a review of the Boston and New York Local Storm Reports this morning indicated trees down, street flooding, that sort of thing. There are thousands of people still without power. Here is the 5am radar (left) and 48 hour rainfall accumulation (right):

Unusually, most of the rain fell in New York and on the west side of the storm. Going to be a messy day today as the remnants slowly wander towards the east, not moving a lot. So if you are in that area be careful.

It’s not a dry heat

So there’s one or two heat warnings and advisories up this morning …

(in red, click to embiggen; blue stuff are flood, fog, or coastal advisories)

… and a lot of talk about the Heat Index. Let’s take a closer look. First off while the temperatures are above normal, at least here in coastal GA/SC they won’t be threatening the historical record highs. The air temperatures are going to be high Friday/Saturday, but won’t set any records. The average for July 30th is 92, the records this time of year are over 100 (101-103), and forecast highs in downtown Savannah are 97 today and 96 Saturday. The problem is that humidity is way above normal. That is due to the pattern of air flow over the region is keeping moist Gulf and Atlantic air “trapped” over us (recall the low pressure system that NHC was looking at earlier this week, AL90, wandered over us, then off of North Florida before drifting back over us). And it’s the humidity that’s the problem.

The Heat Index has an interesting history, and there are several versions. The method currently in use by the US National Weather Service is not a complex equation, if you want to see it look here:
https://www.wpc.ncep.noaa.gov/html/heatindex_equation.shtml

  The TLDR is that the “heat index” is supposed to represent how hot if feels, given that the higher the humidity, it “feels” hotter because your body can’t cool itself as efficiently.  The technical reason is because we cool ourselves by sweating (ewww), and the evaporation of that sweat cools us down, since it takes energy – heat – to convert water from the liquid to gas states.  The evaporation rate depends temperature and humidity – the higher the humidity, the less moisture evaporates, and the less heat is transferred from your body to its surroundings. Drier air means that evaporation works better, so it “feels” cooler (although that can be misleading), thus all the jokes about a Dry Heat …

You can’t talk about heat without quoting Hicks 😛

  Either way, especially if you are not adapted to it, the heat can be dangerous (and in the ranges expected today, even if you are). By the way, the NWS has different criteria for when to issue heat advisories around the country, depending on normals. So a heat advisory in Vermont is issued at much “cooler” temperatures than in Savannah.

 To sum up, technically speaking, it’s not that it’s so hot, it’s because it’s kinda hot and really humid … it would be uncomfortable at 97, but all that humidity today will make it feel like it’s well over 110, maybe as high as 120 in parts of town where the temperature and humidity gang up.  So if you can avoid working outside this afternoon, don’t, and if you absolutely have to, drink lots of fluids, protect yourself, and be careful.

Update: at 2:30pm, in midtown Savannah the air temperature was 93, the humidity 70%, which adds up to a heat index of 120F :O

#Climate change: which “side” is more delusional?

One of the more catastrophic artifacts of America’s sharply split political system is that instead of one side being right and one side being wrong, both parties seem to be forced by their activists in to adopting positions that are driven by fringe ideology instead of rational thought as to how to solve any given problem. The looming climate crisis (which is really a complex energy/financial system crisis) is a perfect example. Which is worse? Hard to say, but let’s take a look at the two biggest delusions: there is no climate change, and renewables will save us.

The delusions of the R’s …

I’ve been involved in climate research for over 25 years, and as a scientist it still stuns me that anyone can possible say anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or some kind if leftist plot, or whatever. I’ve blogged about this before. The data across interlocking disciplines like meteorology, oceanography, biology, geology/geophysics, all point in the same direction. You can argue over the details, and what to do about it, but you can’t argue over the big picture: humans have changed the earth’s climate system, and it is likely to enter a period of rapid change over the next century that will most likely prove highly disruptive both to humans and the natural world. However, as someone with a background in the geopolitical world, denying human impacts on climate doesn’t surprise me a bit – in fact, given how the crisis came to light, it was inevitable.

Some of the more outspoken scientists doing early research on climate really screwed up. I understand that they feared for the future and felt they needed to raise the alarm, but they overstepped the bounds of the role of scientists. Many of them in the public eye (such as James Hansen) crossed the line between science and partisan politics by advocating specific actions based on their political leanings. By the mid to late 1990s the impression had been firmly fixed in the minds of many politicians as well as members of the public that the science was politically biased. Combined with the religious component (as I discussed in the link above), this created a circumstance where the science wasn’t trusted. While it would have been a hard job to navigate the complex energy, financial, and societal response required by human impacts on climate, this false impression of political bias in the science has created an almost intractable situation.

and the D’s aren’t any better.

The situation on the Progressive side of the spectrum isn’t any better. By any rational metric the proposals floating around for the Green New Deal are technological fantasies, and are based more on restructuring society than the realities of trying to address the climate crisis. Take one small technical detail about so-called renewable energy: solar panels and wind turbines (much less batteries) are advanced electronic devices. They take a lot of Rare Earth Elements(REE) to make, and that presents two huge problems:
1) Mining and processing REE’s is an environmentally destructive process, basically being strip mining with lots of toxic (even radioactive) waste (more so than mining Uranium), not to mention using a lot of water.
2) Depending on how you crunch the numbers, there aren’t enough known REE’s on the planet for even a third of our present energy needs.

If it wasn’t so delusional and going to end so badly it would be mildly amusing to hear people rant about how fossil fuels are limited and using them is environmentally damaging, then in the next breath preach about the cleanliness and potential for solar or wind – which are by the same measures just as resource limited and environmentally destructive.

Maybe this guy wants the job of fixing things …

So what do we do? Like most things, anyone who says they have “THE” answer is, well, delusional. This is a very complex problem that crosses so many aspects of society. It won’t be easy, and it will take time – time we are running out of if we haven’t already. As I noted above, I think for the most part scientists should keep out of the political process. However, if I were acclaimed Imperator Caesar, Princeps Senatus, Tribunicia Potestas, Pontifex Maximus (which is the only way I’d take on the job), I think I could put together an approach to start down the path to a solution. But nobody presently in power would like it. The first thing I’d do is completely rework the system of global governance. The climate crisis is ultimately a failure of governance – and it isn’t the worst threat we face in that respect (I am convinced that the worst threat to humanity – and the environment – is conflict/war and the collapse of the complex system of resource allocation/distribution needed to sustain nearly eight billion humans). As for energy and resources, there really isn’t much choice for wide scale reduction of emissions given our present technology: immediate widespread use of nuclear for electricity generation, combined with a crash program for fusion and the development of a sustainable, high energy density method of powering transportation systems. There are other complex changes that need to be made, all of which will take time and some serious rethinking of how society functions. In other words, to fix this, the technology will piss off Progressives, and the social changes will piss off the Neoconservatives. So I just don’t know how our present angry, bifurcated political system can come up with a good plan without an outside force like a benign Emperor to make the two sides behave.

Yes, climate problem is a crisis, and we’ve wasted at least 25 years we really didn’t have to start dealing with it. But we need to sort out the technology and have a clear rational, compassionate path forward before upending our economy and society. Going down the wrong path will kill as many if not more people, and be at least as destructive to the environment, as doing nothing.

Seasonal #Hurricane #Forecasts and ENSO

Like a bad remake of Groundhog Day, it’s that time of year when the various research groups emerge from their ivy covered lairs and issue forecasts for the upcoming Atlantic Hurricane season. I used to play that game, with the annual press conferences, media interviews, and associated tabulation of number of articles and citations to go into the next annual report and round of funding requests. But the last decade or so I have given up on the annual media circus as NOAA has started issuing its own estimates, and our research has moved on to site specific seasonal impact estimates rather than simply counting the number of storms. After all, having 20 storms doesn’t matter if none of them hit you; likewise, one storm can ruin your decade. So while this post does end with a suitably depressing outlook for 2021, it is more about the influence of the big driver of storm activity in the Atlantic: the ENSO or El Niño cycle.

CFS2 ENSO Forecast this fall from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has a huge impact on global weather. Although the usual way of measuring it is in terms of East Pacific sea surface temperatures, ENSO is a complex phenomena that changes both oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns worldwide. The Wikipedia page has a nice overview of the system; what concerns us here is the impact on hurricanes. In the Atlantic, the warm phase of ENSO (El Niño) typically depresses hurricane activity; likewise, the cold phase (La Niña) tends to result in more and stronger storms. Periods in between are called “ENSO Neutral” or neutral. The reason ocean temperatures in the Pacific influences Atlantic hurricanes (in another ocean thousands of miles away) are complex, but mostly have to do with wind shear over the Atlantic and the so-called “steering currents” that push storms around as they move across the ocean. Don’t confuse these Pacific SST’s with ocean temperatures in the Atlantic – that is a separate cycle and phenomena. Normally we associate warmer oceans with more hurricanes, but in this case, a warmer Pacific during a El Niño phase means the Atlantic becomes less favorable (at least from a wind shear perspective)! The worst combination is a cold Pacific (La Niña) and a warm Atlantic: the cold Pacific is cold because winds are favorable over the Atlantic, and the warm Atlantic means more energy for Atlantic storms. Confused yet? Don’t be – in this case it’s simple, we’re just looking at how the three phases of ENSO correlate with hurricane landfalls and damage since it is such a big factor.

Let’s take a look at the peak of hurricane season, the month of September to see what impact the contrasting ENSO phases have on the number of storms, as well as on damage. Using data since 1871, it’s pretty even split between the two contrasting conditions. About 25% of Septembers are El Niño, 24% are La Niña, whereas 51% are neutral. But in terms of total numbers of storms, 30% occur in La Niña years, whereas 22% occur in El Niño. That doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but it actually translates in to a significant difference in the number of storms between the two years – an El Niño September typically has one third fewer storms than either a neutral or La Niña year. The number of people impacted by hurricane conditions also reflects this difference in a similar way. About a third fewer people are impacted by hurricane conditions in an average El Niño September than in other kinds of years. Damage basin-wide is not quite so dramatic, with damage during La Niña years only about 25% higher than in El Niño. But … there are regional twists to this story.

The biggest driver of the economic impact of hurricanes in the Atlantic is of course the mainland United States. The US experiences nearly DOUBLE the economic impact of hurricanes in an average La Niña September as compared to El Niño years (33% vs 17%)! This is partly due to the higher intensity, but more importantly due to the landfalls in La Niña years being closer to high value exposures (cities, or targets if you prefer 😮 ) in the Northeast and Atlantic coasts. Looking at the other two active months, La Niña Augusts tend to have more storms – but those storms stay offshore, so the damage actually tends to be less than in El Niño years, but in October the impacts are dramatic. A La Niña October tends to generate three times the damage as an El Niño year.

If you look at individual states there are also dramatic differences. In Florida, La Niña Septembers have generated FOUR TIMES as much damage as El Niño years! In New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts there have been so few El Niño losses the computer said “Fuhgettaboutit” when I asked, they are so rarely damaged during those years, and La Niña years are so bad. The Gulf Coast isn’t quite so dramatic, but still Louisiana has had just under twice as much damage during La Niña.

Another interesting area is the Georgia/South Carolina Lowcountry coast (south of Edisto Isl). The unusual shape of the coastline, combined with being at the latitude where storms begin to recurve to the northeast means that for hurricane damage, the difference between La Niña and El Niño isn’t quite so dramatic – only about a 30% difference. However, unusually, activity is depressed in ENSO Neutral years, and elevated in both La Niña and El Niño Septembers.

What can we expect for this year? The current ENSO forecast for August to October is that we will almost certainly be at least neutral, and there is around a 50% chance of being back into La Niña conditions by September, and a higher chance for that in October. While not as favorable as last year, that’s Not Good for hurricane season, as it means higher than average activity. Therefore, I expect the hurricane forecasts coming out over the next few weeks to reflect that. Not likely as many storms as last year, but very likely to have multiple threats over the season. But there are a lot of other factors that go in to how many storm form in a given year, much less where any individual storms goes once it forms. The atmosphere is a very complex beastie.

So let the scare mongering begin … or, you could just enjoy the beautiful spring weather, the flowers blooming, and consider that as bad as hurricanes are, and unlike tornadoes that give you little warning, or earthquakes that give you almost none at all, you can see them coming days away, and have time to get out of the way. So as a reminder, this is the time of year to revisit your hurricane plans, especially insurance. There is a “lock out” period for changes prior to a storm and if you wait until one is headed your way, it’s too late. Check out Ready.gov for checklists and advice.

Cold Hard Cash: #cost estimate for the big freeze in #Texas

I’m starting to see a few estimates on the cost of this episode in the media, for what it’s worth here’s the Enki estimate … there is probably going to be on the order of $30-35 Billion in physical damage across the Southwest and Midwest, mostly in the form of water damage from busted pipes, of which about $20 Billion or so will be covered by insurance, making this a big but not catastrophic event for the suits. The economic hit on the other hand is probably another $40 to $55 Billion, making this a $80 to $90 Billion dollar episode when you roll together the physical damage, economic impact, and government budget hits. When you consider that a few hundred million dollars of mitigation efforts (efforts that were recommended as far back as 1989) could have prevented maybe all but about $10 Billion of that, not to mention all the human suffering and even loss of life, there should be a serious reconsideration of priorities and some well deserved finger pointing …

Still snow on the ground in the midwest as of Saturday afternoon …

About the #Texas #Outages

Lots of misinformation and spin going around about the ongoing wave of power outages in Texas. The TLDR is that 1) the systems in Texas are not properly protected from winter weather that it should be able to handle; 2) it’s mostly a natural gas problem; 3) the fact that a nuclear plant is offline, and renewables (wind, solar) are also offline due to weather isn’t helping. Here are some details …

Another wave of cold weather sweeping into Texas, Thursday Morning, 18 Feb 2021

The Texas grid -managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT – has around 84 Gigawatts (GW) of power available to it; winter peak demand is expected to be 67GW, and the peak demand earlier this week hit 69GW according to ERCOT. On Tuesday 16GW of renewables and 30GW of “thermal” sources (mostly natural gas) were offline. The biggest problem is that the natural gas system wasn’t able to handle the weather.

Yes, it is cold – but we have had colder events in the past. My quick-look analysis shows this is maybe a 1 in 15 year event, in the southern part of the state 1 in 25 or so. For “lifeline” infrastructure like the power grid, it should be able to handle a 1 in 50 event with intermittent outages. In 2011 there was a cold weather event that caused widespread outages. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) wrote a report about it with recommendations on how to address the problems. The report is pretty blunt, saying

The experiences of 1989 are instructive, particularly on the electric side. … investigated the occurrence and issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization on the part of the generators. These recommendations were not mandatory, and over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011. … However, in many cases, the needed fixes would not be unduly expensive.

This 2011 report also points out “On the gas side, producers experienced production declines in all of the recent prior cold weather events.” and “It is reasonable to assume from this pattern that the level of winterization put in place by producers is not capable of withstanding unusually cold temperatures.

The report describes the causes and impacts of storms in 1989, 2003, 2011, and others. The 2011 report executive summary states:

This report makes a number of recommendations that the task force believes are both reasonable economically and which would substantially reduce the risk of blackouts and natural gas curtailments during the next extreme cold weather event that hits the Southwest.

Needless to say, this wasn’t done. Therefore it would seem that what happened in Texas this week was completely foreseeable, and not some freak of nature, but a direct consequence of natural gas providers and the electric utilities not taking recommended actions to protect the grid from infrequent – but not rare or terribly unusual – weather events.

Commentary: A lot of commentators and sources like those on Fox News with an ax to grind are saying that this is because the wind and solar sources are offline. True, that isn’t helping, and the increasing reliance of the grid on these sources will over time be problematic on a lot of levels. Likewise, CNN is actually blaming climate change! That too is a bunch of bull crap, even though anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem we need to deal with. But the simple truth is that the blame this time is firmly on natural gas providers being too cheap to winterize their equipment against an eminently foreseeable event. This can be attributed in part to deregulation, the way the capital markets work, and the prioritization of quarter over quarter profits against overall system reliability. There are other complexities here, such as the move to NG based electricity production to speed the shutdown of coal fired plants (a move pushed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is much more complex and less effective than policy planners want to admit). In short, this is an economics and political problem, not an engineering or mother-nature-sticking-it-to-us problem.

The bottom line is that for lifeline infrastructure like electrical power, the current system is unacceptable. The problem is, given the politics and economics, it isn’t going to get any better, and while not responsible for this particular disaster, the push for the “Green New Deal” and elimination of nuclear and fossil fuel based energy production will make it worse, just as the push to deregulate set up the current situation.

PS – for some great discussions about the energy industry, follow Art Berman’s twitter feed and if you’re in that world his blog and consulting resources are invaluable.

Thinking about weather/#climate #records

People love sports analogies. Maybe that’s why talking about weather records – be it record lows, record snow, whatever – gets a lot of press and attention. Sometimes it’s warranted, a lot of times it is (Surprise!) exaggerated and, almost always, reported out of context. The series of winter storms causing so much disruption across the US right now are certainly severe … here’s the current snow cover map, and forecast additional snow over the next 48 hours …

Snow Cover (blue) as of this morning (16 Feb 2021)

But just how “record breaking” is it? Let’s take a quick look at one weather station in Texas and try to get some context. Since we’re talking about the US, we’ll use medieval measurement units related to the FFF system 😛 …

Here is an excerpt from the official daily climate report from the NWS office in Houston, for Houston International Airport yesterday (Monday the 15th):

000
 CDUS44 KHGX 160849
 CLIIAH
 CLIMATE REPORT
 NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HOUSTON/GALVESTON TX
 249 AM CST TUE FEB 16 2021
 ……………………………..
 …THE HOUSTON INTERCONTINENTAL CLIMATE SUMMARY FOR FEBRUARY 15 2021…
 CLIMATE NORMAL PERIOD: 1981 TO 2010
 CLIMATE RECORD PERIOD: 1892 TO 2021
 WEATHER ITEM   OBSERVED TIME   RECORD YEAR NORMAL DEPARTURE LAST
                 VALUE   (LST)  VALUE       VALUE  FROM      YEAR
                                                   NORMAL
 ………………………………………………………….
 TEMPERATURE (F)
  YESTERDAY
   MAXIMUM         25   3:10 PM  83    1962  66    -41       67
                                       1990
                                       2000
   MINIMUM         16R  7:26 AM  18    1905  47    -31       40
   AVERAGE         21                        56    -35       54

That “R” next to the minimum means it is a new record. So … using the period 1892 to 2021 as the period of reference, the low temperature Monday set a new record for the 15th of February at 16 degrees. The old record was 18. In media headline terms, RECORD LOW IN HOUSTON!!! LOWEST TEMPERATURE IN OVER ONE HUNDRED YEARS!

But … if you read down a bit you will see the record for the 16th is 13 degrees, and if we check the 14th, the record was 10 degrees F (yes, ten!). So in that context, 16 is really cold but not so bad. Plus or minus a day in climate terms is no big deal, so for context you have to look at a couple of days either side of a record to see. In my global data archive I have daily records for thousands of stations since the mid 1970’s (that is the beginning of somewhat regular satellite data which is important in my research). Looking at Houston Intercontinental, we see that the twenty coldest temperatures since 1973 are:

     dtg         | lotempf 
 ---------------------+---------
  1989-12-24 00:00:00 |       7
  1989-12-23 00:00:00 |       7
  1983-12-25 00:00:00 |      11
  1989-12-25 00:00:00 |      11
  1983-12-26 00:00:00 |      11
  1982-01-11 00:00:00 |      12
  1985-01-22 00:00:00 |      16
  1985-01-21 00:00:00 |      16
  1989-12-22 00:00:00 |      16
  1979-01-03 00:00:00 |      17
  1979-01-02 00:00:00 |      17
  1983-12-27 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-31 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-20 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-11 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-10 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-24 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-19 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-30 00:00:00 |      19
  1976-11-30 00:00:00 |      19
 (20 rows)

So a low of sixteen is in fact pretty cold – now in the top 10 years since 1973, and the coldest mid February temperature since 1981 when there were a couple days that hit 20F.

In technical terms, this is the danger of looking at the tails of distributions, because of the way weather works with systems spanning several days, there is correlation between days, and gaps in the extremes.

So, yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s disruptive (even though it shouldn’t be, but that’s a different rant). It’s hazardous or even dangerous if you don’t exercise some common sense and take some precautions. But while extreme, I think calling it “once in a lifetime” is probably a bit overblown, given the 1989 Christmas cold snap with a week of lows below 20F. As with most things, context is everything.

Final note – during these kinds of extreme weather events, especially with power outages, please keep an eye on your neighbors (especially the elderly and those with health issues or disabilities) to make sure they are safe. Bring animals in for sure, and consider helping with projects that try to shelter strays. Given icy roads, DON’T DRIVE ON THEM IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! And if you grew up in the south, be realistic: you don’t know what you are doing!!

Oh, and a reminder: WINTER STORMS DON’T HAVE NAMES!

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 …