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Monday, October 31, 2011

New charts needed for Russia and Texas heat waves

A few posts ago, I likened our planetary situation today to that of medieval mariners, sailing off the maps of the known world and into uncharted waters.  That simile is underlined by findings showing that that heat waves in Texas (2011) and Russia (2010) were literally off the charts.

For Russia, the money graph is in this Climate Progress article on the heat wave, showing July temperature anomalies in Moscow since 1950. Take a moment to look at it and grasp the way in which the information is displayed--I was shocked when I realized what it showed.  There's a pretty normal bell-shaped distribution around the average, although it clearly leans a bit toward the warm side, with several years there not having equivalents on the cool side.  But then comes 2010, standing by itself about 4 degrees F hotter than any other year.  As the article details, a recent paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Rahmstorf and Coumou concluded, based on statistical analysis, that there is an 80 percent chance that planetary warming contributed to this remarkable meteorological event, which may well have claimed more than 50,000 lives.

For the Texas heat wave, again Climate Progress has a good summary, including two graphs from Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon that show the unprecedented nature of the summer of 2011 in the Lone Star State.  See the charts labeled "Texas Summers" (2011 all by itself, a la Moscow 2010, in a graphic of average temperatures and precipitation of past summers) and "Histogram of Texas August Temperatures."  They are from a blog article by Nielsen-Gammon entitled "Can You Spot the Outlier?," in which he comments: "The year 2011 continues the recent trend of being much warmer than the historical precipitation-temperature relationship would indicate, although with no previous points so dry it’s hard to say exactly what history would say about a summer such as this one.  Except that this summer is way beyond the previous envelope of summer temperature and precipitation." (emphasis mine)

Climate change skeptics and deniers are always arguing that climate scientists don't know everything about the planetary climate system, and of course, they're right. But the series of weather catastrophes that has occurred around the world over the last decade, and the unprecedented nature of those occurring more recently, should remind us: climate change skeptics and deniers know little if anything about the size of the risks that their what-me-worry approach to climate science entails. They are too busy "straining at gnats and swallowing camels"--poking minuscule holes in climate science while ignoring the enormity of the real-time weather events occurring all around us.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

'It's cold today: So much for global warming'

As I write this, several inches of snow are predicted later today and this evening for the northeastern U.S., and the predictable flood of lame-ass jokes about Al Gore, stupid scientists, and global warming alarmists is clogging Twitter.  U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) set the gold standard for this genre of know-nothing humor, encouraging his grandchildren to build an igloo in Washington, D.C., in February 2010 during a record snowfall there and dubbing it "Al Gore's new home." Photo op! (the media equivalent of "Squirrel!")

To quote a favorite movie line from Michael Caine, pardon me while I fall down laughing.

So, what's the real story, as opposed to the line being pushed by the fossil fuel industries and their dupes?  Does a cold snap, and an early snowfall, really mean we can ignore climate science?  Um .... no.

Skeptical Science covers both phenomena, cold days and heavy snow, in its usual informative style. For cold days, it points out that in recent decades, the ratio of new record high temperatures to record low temperatures in the U.S. has risen dramatically.  For more detail on this issue, see this post from Climate Progress on record highs and record lows.  But, here's the key point to remember: while the underlying model from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) suggests that the ratio of record highs to record lows could climb from 2-to-1 during the 2000s to 50-to-1 by 2100, even in 2100, there would still be occasional record cold days somewhere in the U.S.  What would those record cold days say about global warming?  Not a damn thing.

While we are on the subject, a couple of additional things to note, which make it clear that the trend toward higher temperatures continues inexorably:

1) The ratio of record highs to lows (for the date) spiked in the U.S. during the summer of 2011. For August, in particular, it reached the alarming level of 22-to-1.

2) According to the National Climatic Data Center, August 2011 was also the "318th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below average temperatures was February 1985."

As for heavy snow, it's actually an expectable and predicted outcome of global warming.  Why?  To quote Skeptical Science, "Global temperatures in the last few months of record snowfall are some of the hottest on record. Warming causes more moisture in the air which leads to more extreme precipitation events. This includes more heavy snowstorms in regions where snowfall conditions are favourable. Far from contradicting global warming, record snowfall is predicted by climate models and consistent with our expectation of more extreme precipitation events." (emphasis mine)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Neutrinos stage speedy rescue from global warming ... whew!

The story is told about Bill Klem, a famous baseball umpire, that after a player was called out on strikes and angrily threw his bat high in the air, Klem said, "Young man, if that bat comes down, you're out of the game."

That always seemed pretty funny to me, until I heard about Robert Bryce's recent opinion article in the Wall Street Journal.  Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, noting recent experiments at the European high-energy physics laboratory CERN, which appeared to show that neutrinos travel faster than light, said they clearly indicate there is more room for debate about climate science.  Seriously.

Now I realize that Klem was simply ahead of his time.  Perhaps a neutrino from 2011 had traveled back in time and whispered to him.  In any event, he clearly recognized that since nothing in science is certain, that bat might sprout wings at any moment and fly away.

I've been trying to think of a suitable analogy for Bryce's assertion, but it's hard.  Perhaps the most relevant (and starkest) one is this: would you let someone set fire to your house, on the grounds that because scientists may have discovered neutrinos traveling faster than light, it's not really certain that it will burn?  Because that is essentially what he and others in denial about climate science propose to do to your, and my, planet.

(By the way, the headline on this post?  It's just a joke.  Obviously, if neutrinos were really going to rescue us from global warming, it would already have happened.)

Here's a roundup of some other opinions on Bryce's quintessentially quirky approach to pondering, and learning from, the findings of science:

Robert Bryce Makes Mockery of Science, Is Mocked in Return - ClimateProgress
Of Neutrinos and Climate Science - Media Matters
What Do Neutrinos Have to Do With Climate? Not Much - LiveScience
Neutrinos and P-Brains - Randomology
Wall Street Journal: neutrinos show climate change isn't real - Bad Astronomer (Discover Magazine)
Neutrinos spark wild scientific leaps - Cosmic Log - MSNBC

Monday, October 3, 2011

The New York Times and global warming (not): why?

Why has The New York Times so totally blown it on global warming?

It's the story of the century--perhaps the millennium--and the most respected newspaper in America has been AWOL.  Out to lunch.  Missing in action.

Our story begins in 1988, a year of record drought in the United States.  At some point, I recall muttering to my wife, "Pretty soon they're going to figure out that this is global warming, and it's coming on a lot faster than they thought."  Remarkably, within a day or two, NASA climatologist James Hansen testified before Congress that the telltale signs of global warming were beginning to be discernible.

I had high hopes for the Times.  In my dreams, I even thought it might do what it sometimes did with truly major news developments (and shortly thereafter actually did with the crisis of Communism and fall of the Berlin Wall)--devote a special two-page daily section of the paper to climate change.  What an idiot, huh?

Not only did it not put together special coverage of climate change, it has pretty much ignored it over the 23 years since--even the Science Times, its special weekly section that focuses on scientific developments, has largely given global warming a pass.  And when it HAS covered the issue, too often its coverage has, to put it charitably, stunk.

What a tragedy.

I did my bit, for quite a while.  From 1982 to the early 2000s, I was the editor of a renewable energy newsletter, and I saw to it that global warming received steady coverage after Hansen's testimony--right up until the head of the organization that published the newsletter called me on the phone and ordered me to stop.

There was no shortage of news--I read scientific journal articles regularly during the early 1990s to keep up on developments, and there was a steady flow of new papers with findings consistent with climate change, just as there is today.  You'll read about precious few of them in The New York Times, but they're there.

In any event, I don't know why the Times has failed us all so utterly on this most important issue of our time.  It's great that it's publishing occasional stories like the one a few days ago on how many of the world's forests seem to be suffering from wildfires and other problems related to--climate change--but they're far too little and too late.

For the record, from Climate Progress, the excellent blog which has been documenting the failings of mainstream media on climate coverage, here are some outstanding examples of how the Times has let us down:

NY Times strikes false balance on climate change, September 17, 2011
NY Times asks why "horrible" U.S. drought "has come on extra hot and extra early."  Their answer is ... La Nina, of course!, July 11, 2011
Must-see video connects the dots, while a NY Times story on the record Arizona wildfires fails to, June 12, 2011
NY Times reports Inhofe's gleeful disinformation--with no balance at all, December 6, 2010
As nation, Russia, and world swelter under record-smashing heat waves, The New York Times sets one-day record for most unilluminating stories, July 26, 2010
New York Times public editor files final report, never mentions the paper's dreadful global warming coverage, June 13, 2010
Brulle: “The NY Times doesnt need to go to European conferences to find out why public opinion on climate change has shifted…. Just look in the mirror," May 26, 2010
Welcome readers of the NYT's front-page story with the bad headline, February 11, 2010
NY Times and Elisabeth Rosenthal face credibility siege over unbalanced climate coverage, February 9, 2010
Anti-science ideologues spin the NY Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, on 'Climategate', December 6, 2009
Signs of global warming are everywhere, but if the New York Times can't tell the story (twice!), how will the public hear it?, July 1, 2009
New York Times runs absurdly misleading headline on Revkin's sea level rise (non)story, May 14, 2009
John Tierney makes up stuff, just like George Will--does the New York Times also employ several know/do-nothing fact checkers?, February 24, 2009
Is the New York Times coverage of global warming fatally flawed?, February 22, 2009
The New York Times blows the bark beetle story, November 19, 2008

Bear in mind, most of these critiques are dated more than 20 years after James Hansen's testimony.  My, my, where has the time gone?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

'It rained so hard the oceans fell'

A nice report from some other parts of the Terra Incognita of rain: the widespread downpours and flooding of 2010-11, when it "rained so hard the oceans fell," by Barry Saxifrage on Climate Progress.

In this part of Terra Incognita, it's raining

Terra Incognita: "unknown land." It's the phrase early mapmakers applied to land beyond the boundaries of the known world. Some conceptions were fanciful--the phrase "Here there be dragons" was sometimes used to express the perils of the unknown, or a mammoth waterfall to delineate the seas' furthest edge--but the words Terra Incognita were a simple and powerful reminder of the limits of knowledge.

Terra Incognita, to my mind, describes where we are today in terms of climate and weather. And in this part of Terra Incognita--central Vermont--it's raining.

The nearest weather station to our home reports that so far today, we've had 0.8 inches (20 mm) of rain. On Thursday, two days ago, the same station reported 1.27 inches (32 mm). And so it's gone, off and on, most of the year. We missed the peak rains of Tropical Storm Irene, but still got 4 inches (100 mm). And a few days later, the remains of Tropical Storm Lee arrived, and we got soaked again--2.76 inches (70 mm) spread over five days.

Earlier this year, the National Weather Service reported that Burlington recorded a record of 24.4 inches (620 mm) of rain from January through May. That total was more than four inches above the previous record (20.21 inches, 513 mm, in 1983) and more than 6.5 inches ahead of the third-place year (2000, with 17.74 inches, 451 mm). (Vermont's records, by the way, go back to 1850.)

It wasn't just Vermont, either. For March through May, the National Climatic Data Center found that Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, Colorado and Washington all had their wettest springs in 117 years. Michigan, Montana, and Oregon had their second wettest. And Binghamton, NY, deserves special mention. On September 8 (remains of TS Lee), Binghamton broke its all-time 24-hour precipitation record--by more than 60%!--with 7.49 inches (190 mm).

What's the connection between heavy rainfall and global warming? Evaporation. As ocean waters warm, more water evaporates, and warm air can hold more moisture. That simple fact, plus a small amount of warming, has meant unprecedented rain events in many parts of the world. Besides Binghamton, Pakistan--where truly biblical flooding has happened the past two summers--comes to mind, along with Tennessee, Queensland and more.

So that's the rainy part of Terra Incognita. What about the other parts? Perhaps now would be a good time to say that by Terra Incognita, I don't mean truly unknown. As climate change deniers tirelessly remind us, every weather extreme that is now occurring has happened sometime in the past. But what we are seeing now is still "incognita" in the sense that it hasn't been experienced by anyone now living in the area involved--we're moving into weather none of us have known, and it's not just occurring in Siberia or the Hindu Kush or some other unthinkably remote place, it's happening right in our own backyards.

There's the Terra Incognita of drought and heat--in July, Oklahoma recorded the hottest month ever, not just for Oklahoma, but for any state in the U.S. Texas's drought has been even further off the charts--the Texas State Climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, commented, " ... [W]ith no previous points so dry it’s hard to say exactly what history would say about a summer such as this one. Except that this summer is way beyond the previous envelope of summer temperature and precipitation." NASA's James Hansen, who told Congress in 1988 that signs of global warming were becoming apparent and that we are "loading the climate dice" in the direction of more extreme weather, now says that parts of the southern U.S. may become "almost uninhabitable" in the not too distant future.

And there's the Terra Incognita of ice. It's melting. For some eye-popping numbers, check the first graphic in this post on Arctic sea ice. It shows that estimated sea ice volume in the summer of 2011 was less than 1/4 what it was in 1979, 32 years ago, and less than half what it was as recently as 2006. !

The melting of Arctic sea ice carries some further potential negative implications--feedback from open water absorbing more of the sun's heat than reflective ice, feedback from release of methane locked up in permafrost, and the simple release of more heat energy that is currently going into melting cubic kilometers of ice. But I'll leave those for another time.

Right now, it's morning, and the forecast here for today is: rain. As we collectively sail out into open waters and slowly watch the known land disappear, I'm hoping there isn't a giant waterfall somewhere ahead beyond the horizon. I'm sure that faint roaring sound I hear is just my imagination.

UPDATE - 9 October 2011 - Here's a report by Weather Underground's Dr. Jeff Masters from the Terra Incognita of ozone: a large and unexpected ozone hole opened in the Arctic this spring, and it's reasonable to think that it is linked to climate change.  Why should we care?  "The total loss of ozone in a column from the surface to the top of the atmosphere reached 40% during the peak of this year's Arctic ozone hole. Since each 1% drop in ozone levels results in about 1% more UV-B reaching Earth's surface (WMO, 2002), UV-B levels reaching the surface likely increased by 40% at the height of this year's hole. We know that an 11% increase in UV-B light can cause a 24% decrease in winter wheat yield (Zheng et al., 2003), so this year's Arctic ozone hole may have caused noticeable reductions in Europe's winter wheat crop." (emphasis mine)

UPDATE - 29 October 2011 - More from Climate Progress on the Terra Incognita of Rain: extraordinary flooding in El Salvador follows similar deluge in Thailand.  We are seeing the consequences of a modest increase in evaporation--in spades.