Temperatures in the UK and Europe are on track to set all time records today. Headlines on BBC are “Warnings of Heat Apocalypse (link)”, which for once are actually not far off …
France has been suffering for several days, with not just high temperatures but extensive fires in the Southwest of the country. Portugal and Spain also have extensive fires, here is one as observed by the EU’s Sentinel satellite system:
London is under its first ever “Red Extreme Heat Warning (link)” and is on track for records today. The overall high temperature record is the UK us 38.7F, or 101.7. That record will almost certainly be broken somewhere in southern England today. But records are broken all the time, given the fact our record of observations is relatively limited. So just how unusual is this? Let’s take a closer look.
The observatory at Greenwich has been collecting data since 1841. That’s a pretty good record, but it’s only 180 years. Using data from 1991 to 2020, the average high in July is 74.8F, the record is 95.5F, the all time record, set in August 2003, is 99.5F. The previous record was set in 1990 at 95F. So if the temperature does hit 106F as forecast then both the July and all time records will be shattered. So this is a pretty unusual event. Is it related to climate change? Well, that’s a more complicated question. The temperatures are likely higher due to anthropogenic (human caused) factors. Pointing the finger at any given day or event and screaming “J’ACCUSE!” is really tricky (and scientifically unsound). What we can say is that events like this are more likely, and we will see more of them going forward. That’s not a good thing.
Despite the rain, recent thunderstorms have triggered a few fires in the area given the persistent dry conditions. The wildland fires on St. Catherine’s Island (Wikipedia), located between Savannah and Brunswick, are getting some media coverage (WJCL TV) and social media angst. The smoke plumes are visible from space, but a better picture can be had from the infrared sensors on the polar orbiting satellites. Here are the fire signatures detected from the NOAA “Sumoi” polar orbiter over the last 24 hours ending 7am …
And here is a visible band view from the same satellite from yesterday, with the smoke plume visible …
These kinds of fires are an essential part of the coastal ecosystem. The fires create habitats for birds and animals (like the Red Cockaded Woodpecker – link goes to USFS) and in the long run reduce the overall fire danger by keeping fuel levels down. This becomes more of a problem where human encroachment puts our stuff in areas that have adapted, over thousands of years, to periodic burns. Over the last few decades there has been a concerted effort to try to balance letting them run their course and protecting human infrastructure. There are ongoing studies trying to figure out if we will get more fires as climate changes. We don’t really have a good answer to that yet (USGS) …
Tropical Storm Blas has formed off of the west coast of Mexico. It is expected to stay offshore, becoming a hurricane later today before it encounters adverse conditions Friday and begins to decay. Other that some higher than normal waves shouldn’t be a problem. Elsewhere, two “invest” areas are being tracked by NHC, both near Central America. The GFS model shows the one off of Nicaragua (AL932022) moving across Belize/Yucatan perhaps reaching tropical storm strength. The outlook for one off of Costa Rica isn’t so clear, it will probably bring rains to the region but how organized it gets isn’t obvious yet. Here’s the map …
Some strong thunderstorms wandered through coastal Georgia yesterday, caused some scattered damage. The NWS Local Storms Report database shows quite a few trees down and power outages across the region …
The scariest thing to me is that despite the obvious attempts to be “over the top” it was far too often “close to the mark.” I won’t do any real spoilers here, except this brief note from the first few minutes of the film: the scientists discovering an urgent threat are bundled up and flown to Washington DC to brief government officials (including the President). They they wait outside the oval office, are finally sent to stay in a hotel overnight as political stuff came up, and have to come back the next day. They are then misunderstood and ignored, and go home on the train. Been there, done that. Except I got stuck paying for my own hotel room due to a paperwork screwup.
Pick a topic: foreign policy/nuclear war, climate, resource depletion, economics, pandemic, whatever, and the attitudes in Don’t Look Up are played out in our society every day. Scientists getting hijacked by the DC/Media Culture, ratings driven “news” stories, the “if it didn’t come from the Ivy League it can’t be worth much” worldview, politicians with one eye on the polls and the other on their billionaire backers, it’s all here. And far too real.
Doomwatch give this five stars. It does for the current politics/media/high-tech-billionaire society what Dr. Strangelove did for the Cold War. A lot of people won’t like it, and certain political parties will take offense by thinking it is about them, and the “other side” will smugly make the same assumption, rather than in fact about the whole system. But give it a try, and consider if you too are “feeding the beast” and try to think of ways of changing our society to get away from this train wreck. Because even if you avoid the end of the world, you might be eaten by a Bronteroc.
St. Petersburg (the cold one, in Russia) set a record low last night at -21C (-5.8F), breaking the old record set in 1893. So what does this mean for climate change? Nothing. Just like any given record high doesn’t mean anything. Here’s why …
Analyzing climate records isn’t as straightforward as just saying it’s a record high or low. First, you have to be careful about the time frame; naturally, the longer the time frame, the less likely it is that anew record will be set (and of course short time frames are more likely to have records set). For Petersburg, the period of observations is 138 years, which a pretty good time frame. For a given site you’d have to watch over a period of many years to see if you are setting more high records than low records. That (along with other metrics like daily temp ranges, averages, etc) will let you see if things are changing. One-off records either way don’t mean much.
But, by aggregating records from around the world and taking in to account all the variables like length of recording period, moving stations, and other factors like changes in urban heat islands, we can start to get a picture of what is going on without having to wait 30 or 40 years. What we are seeing in the area of records is that more high records are being set than low records – by a factor of about 2:1 last year (2020). That is one indication that the Earth is warming. So, one or more record lows doesn’t mean global warming is a hoax, just as a few record highs means the opposite. You have to look at all the data – and the totality of the data does indicate that the atmosphere is changing for the warmer. What to do about that is a longer story …
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 …
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.
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.
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:
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.
The point gauge readings are epic; the previous record was nine inches, so this event nearly doubled that total:
OUS44 KOHX 230839
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)
DICKSON 6.3 WSW.....13.76" (COCORAHS)
CENTERVILLE 2 N.....10.71" (CO-OP)
DICKSON 12.7 NW......9.79" (COCORAHS)
BON AQUA 3.0 ESE.....8.29" (COCORAHS)
DICKSON AIRPORT......8.17" (AWOS)
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.
So there’s one or two heat warnings and advisories up this morning …
… 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 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 …
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
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.
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.
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.
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.