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Facts and uncertainty about Earth’s climate

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Fact: Earth’s average annual temperature is rising.

Fact: There was a considerable slow-down, referred to as a pause, in Earth’s warming trend from about the year 2000 through about 2012.

Fact: Sea level overall is rising – although not uniformly around the world due to the rising and sinking of land masses.

sea level rise

This chart, courtesy of EPA.gov/climate-indicators, shows the global average absolute sea level change from 1880-2015. Absolute sea level change takes into account the rising and falling of land in locations where those events are occurring.

Fact: Scientists are pretty sure the sun is heading into a minimum with respect to sunspot activity, which is leading to the cooling of the outermost part of Earth’s atmosphere. How long it will last and how much it will affect our surface weather is yet to be determined.

Fact: Using air bubbles trapped in ice cores, scientists have concluded that in the past 400,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not been has high as it is now (since the about 1950). That is not to say “never,” but only to say as long as we can look back using the ice cores as a proxy.

Fact: There is still a fair amount of uncertainty regarding how long-term (decadal and multi-decadal) oscillations in the oceans and atmosphere influence the average global temperature of the planet.

Fact: There are also things that are difficult to account for in modeling future scenarios that can affect the global temperature including volcanic activity, future energy use, and solar activity.

In order to have an intellectually honest and open conversation about climate change, one must consider all the facts. Of course, the ones listed above are not all the facts. They are the ones I can think up off the top of my head on a Monday morning after a long, holiday weekend.

Another requirement for honest discourse is embracing the unknowns and unanswered questions. This is where many people falter. Not knowing the answers can be scary. Knowing that finding the answers may prove the current hypotheses and theories wrong may be even scarier. It’s easier to use the word consensus and disparage those bold enough to ask questions than to face the possible reality that there is still so much that we don’t know we don’t know. (Yes, I meant to repeat those three words.)

Here’s another fact to which as a member of the media I can attest: the reporters, producers, and publishers of the world are the gatekeepers of critical information. In an age when that information must be conveyed in the shortest possible manner such as five to eight-second soundbites or tweets of a couple hundred characters or less, it’s not possible to tell the whole story, or even a fraction of the story, when it comes to complex scientific research. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you advertising or selling you to their advertisers.

In this blog, I do my best to present thought-provoking information when I’m not simply explaining the weather. It’s up to the readers to do the thinking and to seek out more information if they feel the need. I am always happy to point to my resources through hyperlinks and answers. I’m also always happy to seek out new resources as time permits. Feel free to send questions through my Facebook page or to my email: niki@kingsdalemedia.com.

Weather Blog

Giving thanks in a changing climate

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Our national day of gratitude is next Thursday. In Plimoth, New England – now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts – almost 400 years ago, the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag tribe had a feast to celebrate the colony’s first successful harvest. The year was 1621, and the climate was cold. In fact, that year was just decades within range of the peak of the Little Ice Age.

There’s quite a bit of disagreement within the scientific community about exactly when the Little Ice Age began, but most agree that the coldest period within it started around 1650. There’s also some disagreement on the cause of the chilly climactic period. Some point to heightened volcanic activity, some to solar minima, and some to a change in the Earth’s orbit. It’s quite possible that many things contributed to the centuries-long cold spell. After all, climate is a complicated thing.

One fact seems certain: humans had to adapt or die in the face of a cooling planet. The Little Ice Age has been blamed for famine, changes in agricultural practices, and wars (indirectly). For example, when old ways of keeping warm weren’t enough, fireplace hoods and enclosed stoves were developed to make more efficient use of heat. Fossil fuels became more widely used for power toward the end of the period in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Can you imagine life in a strange, new world without our modern-day conveniences when the earth was at least one-degree Celsius cooler? Farm animals struggled to survive long, cold winters. The growing season was shorter. Disease was rampant.

In Plymouth, after two years of struggling, and with help from the local Native American tribe, the settlers finally had a successful harvest and something to celebrate. So, they had a community feast and gave thanks to the Creator for that success.

A tradition was born, and we still celebrate it today. Now we have accessible technology and more options for heating our homes in the winter and cooling them in the summer. We have flat-top stoves, microwaves, and television. We import our cranberries from Massachusetts to North Carolina, raise turkeys on gigantic farms, and wear synthetic fleece to keep the chill off when walking to our cars. Even on our worst days, we have so much for which to be thankful.

Our ability – humanity’s as a whole – to overcome the Little Ice Age by creating new technologies and adapting our lifestyles is the reason I don’t feel hopeless when thinking about the current state of the climate. When the going gets tough, we find new ways to get going. For example, we take old technology like wind mills and improve upon their efficiency and scale. We create new technology such as solar panels and graphene. And in the face of necessity, we find ways to make them more accessible and economical. We must! Because now, as always, humanity needs to adapt to a changing climate.

Weather Blog

Be a good scientist.

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From the “things you won’t see on tonight’s six o’clock news” category… Storms don’t have to be worse for their damage to be worse.

In a recently posted article to the American Meteorological Society’s journals section of its website titled “Continental United States Hurricane Landfall Frequency and Associated Damage: Observations and Future Risks,” study authors Philip J. Klotzbach, Steven G. Bowen, Roger Pielke, Jr., and Michael Bell scrutinized past hurricanes and came to what some people may claim is a surprising conclusion:

“While United States landfalling hurricane frequency or intensity shows no significant trend since 1900, growth in coastal population and wealth have led to increasing hurricane-related damage along the United States coastline.”

In other words, there is no trend that storms are getting bigger, worse, or more frequent despite what you might have heard on TV or read on social media.

Harvey image

Credits: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Some people might claim that at least one of the authors (Pielke, Jr.) should be discredited since, in the past, people who have disagreed with him have attempted to besmirch his reputation by calling him a “climate denier.”

Personally, I think it’s a positive step forward that the AMS is publishing their paper and has released a preliminary version on its site.

I sit on the sidelines of the battle over whether man-made climate change is “settled science.” I read studies and articles from both sides. I think critically about what I read, and I don’t take anything at face value. I ask questions and look for answers down rabbit holes. I also pay attention to the unfortunate fallout – when credible scientists suffer public smear campaigns and career-path roadblocks – all because they are not willing to submit to the so-called consensus and continue to do research that shows that the science isn’t settled.

Science should never be settled. If it were, the earth would still be flat. The sun would revolve around us. There would be nothing smaller than an atom. Gravity would be some god’s way of holding us down… Okay. Maybe that last one was more myth than science, but you get my point.

I’ve written before about how politicizing science causes more damage than good. It causes outsiders to distrust science as a whole, especially when the in-fighting among academics and popular scientists that have suddenly become TV personalities play out on twitter and national media networks. How can you be in search of truth and knowledge if you dismiss anyone who disagrees with what you think you know?

To be a good scientist is to have an open-mind and be willing to entertain more ideas than just the popular ones. A good scientist isn’t gullible or naïve. A good scientist is thoughtful, asks questions, and earnestly searches for answers – even if those answers disprove his own hypotheses. My challenge to all scientists is to strive to be good scientists.

Weather Blog

Models need (and will get) improvement

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Two news stories about forecasting models caught my eye this week. The first dealt with a shortfall in the climate models and the second was good news about continuing improvements in our daily forecasting models.

I’ve written before about potential problems with initial data and assumptions in climate forecasting models – the ones used by climatologists to predict our global conditions decades in the future. Like it or not, they are not perfect.

NASA climate map

Credit: NASA, 2015. “NASA global data set combines historical measurements with data from climate simulations using the best available computer models to provide forecasts of how global temperature (shown here) and precipitation might change up to 2100 under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.”

Some researchers from Princeton University drove that point home with a recent paper in the journal Nature Communications. Jun Yin and Amilcare Porporato’s paper, “Diurnal cloud cycle biases in climate models” details how they carefully analyzed satellite data from 1986 to 2005 and compared the information they gleaned to what the models produce.  The two determined how the time of day that clouds form in reality versus the time of day averaged in the models can affect the amount of solar radiation the models predict.

In the climate models, the cloud cover peaks in the morning. In reality, the cloud cover peaks in the afternoon – the same time the radiation coming from the sun peaks. The amount of clouds and types of clouds between the earth’s surface and the sun make a difference in how much energy from the sun we receive. The climate models’ were over-estimating that amount and potentially forecasting hotter and drier conditions based on it.

The paper states, “Thus, on the one hand, consistent biases in DCC [diurnal cycle of clouds] between present and future climates give rise to similar TOA [top of the atmosphere] reference irradiance, so that the model tuning made for current climate conditions still remains largely effective for the global mean temperature projections. On the other hand, consistent biases have the potential to increase the uncertainty of climate projections.” In simpler terms, the researchers don’t think the temperature forecasts are completely wrong, but they have shown the margin of error may be much greater than most scientists have acknowledged up to this point.

The hope is for the results of the study to be used to improve the current models.

In another story, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), released the news on Tuesday that they are in the third phase of a massive supercomputer system upgrade. This year’s improvements increase the processing speed to 8.4 petaflops and 60 percent more storage capacity. The added speed and storage will allow for more initial conditions data – extremely important information for forecasting – and higher resolution, which will help with accuracy with respect to geographical space and time.

The goal is to improve our forecasting capability, especially when it comes to warning of dangerous storms. The forecasting model specifically mentioned in the press release is the Global Forecasting System (GFS), which has a reputation among many forecasters of often being less than accurate more than two or three days out, even though it produces predictions for 10 days out. Improvements to the GFS are needed and quite welcome!

If you’re not a meteorologist or climatologist, you likely don’t know the frustration of making a forecast based on science and technology – much more than we had fifty years ago – and still knowing that there is a chance the models we rely on are missing critical input and getting it wrong. While most people may not consider a few degrees error in temperature a horrible thing, they’d probably agree when the temperature happens to be around 32 degrees, a few degrees in either direction can make a big difference in our weather reality.

Weather Blog

Will planting more trees stop global warming?

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I have always preferred to exercise outside. I walk on the sidewalks and greenways and hike in the woods. The fresh air and nature’s music – the sounds of the wind through the trees, the birds, running water, etc. – keep me grounded and happy.

Reedy Creek

Trees line a muddy Reedy Creek running through Umstead State Park in Raleigh, NC.

This weekend while walking with my friend at Umstead State Park, I heard a loud, unmistakable popping and cracking, and I looked to our right just in time to see an old, dead tree come crashing down. Believe it or not, that was the second time in a year we have witnessed a tree fall in the woods. If we see one more, I might start to think it has something to do with us.

That moment was a reminder that trees don’t live forever. It was also just part of a thread of tree-themed conversation items that has run through my life in the last month. A larger part is a question I have been asked a few times in recent weeks: will planting more trees stop global warming?

The answer seems simple. After all, we learned in grade school that trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, right? Unfortunately, the issue is really not simple at all.

I don’t claim to be a forestry expert or a climatologist. I’m an operational and broadcast type of meteorologist. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading and researching answers to questions like this one. Over the last couple of days, I have done just that, and trying to find a succinct answer has lead me down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.

It seems – like so many other aspects of weather, climate, environment, and nature – not only is the answer complicated, but all the things we need to consider to be able to answer it are not necessarily completely understood.

If you ask the Arbor Day Foundation, planting trees fights climate change. Period. Its website even tells you which side of your house to plant trees for the biggest benefit if your goal is an energy-efficient home. It says that neighborhoods with tree-lined streets are several degrees cooler than neighborhoods without, and it lists other reasons to plant trees. Of course, what else would you expect from an organization with the goal of planting trees?

An article by Thinkprogress titled “Reforestation Doesn’t Fight Climate Change Unless It’s Done Right,” inspires a bit more deep thought on the subject. The author points out that while reforestation is generally a good idea, planting in the wrong places may actually do more harm than good.  For example, planting more trees in areas that tend to have a good deal of snow such as Canada’s boreal forests, will decrease the earth’s albedo, which is a measure of a planet’s reflectivity. Snow reflects more of the sun’s radiation – earth’s largest source of heat – back to space than trees do. Decreasing the amount of solar radiation reflected would lead to more warming.

An article on Eos, the news website of the American Geophysical Union, makes the same point and talks about afforestation, which is planting forests where none have existed. There’s another interesting idea that has its own pros and cons and if undertaken, must be done so in an intelligent, thoughtful, and well-researched manner. One point to consider is the trees planted should be native to the area and helpful in creating and protecting biodiversity.

One last article that I read was from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. By looking at three case studies in the American Northwest, it explains a little further how reforestation isn’t just about planting trees. I’ll admit, there isn’t much about climate change in this one, but it was interesting nonetheless.

NASA is currently assimilating satellite data into computer models to show how carbon dioxide moves in the atmosphere and changes seasonally. The better those models are, the better we will understand where the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from and goes to, and in the long run, that may help determine just how much planting the right kinds of trees in the right places might help mitigate a warming climate.

 

I really do suggest reading the following linked articles if you want more detail.

Arbor Day Foundation

https://www.arborday.org/trees/climatechange/treeshelp.cfm

Think Progress

https://thinkprogress.org/planting-trees-climate-change-solution-3e5b6979561f

American Geophysical Union

https://eos.org/research-spotlights/can-tree-planting-really-help-mitigate-climate-change

International Union for Conservation of Nature

https://www.iucn.org/content/forest-landscape-restoration-more-planting-trees-three-case-studies-united-states

NASA carbon cycle video and story

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/eye-popping-view-of-co2-critical-step-for-carbon-cycle-science

Weather Blog

Whispers, marches, and science

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I’m not marching for science on April 22. I think it’s a waste of time, energy, and somewhat hypocrytical.

March meme

Meme posted on the Facebook page “March for Science” on March 31, 2017

The Facebook page “March for Science” posted the meme to the right. “Science is unbound by borders, working at its best when ideas flow freely among peoples and nations,” is a beautiful thought, but it’s not reality, and President Trump is not to blame for that fact. The squelching of scientific free speech came long before he took office, and it came from within the scientific community itself.

Let me comment on one issue I am aware of personally, although I’m sure it is just one of many — the issue of the mythological climate consensus. (Oh, I’m in trouble now, aren’t I?)

The pursuit of science is the pursuit of knowledge by observation, creation of hypotheses, testing of hypotheses, more observation, and tweaking of hypotheses, etc. It is a cyclical process. Only when a hypothesis has been tested over and over in ways that are replicable and it is strenthened by replication can that hypothesis graduate to status of theory. Even theories can eventually be proven incorrect.

Somehow the idea that climate change is caused by an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been elevated beyond theory to some new belief system that is not allowed to be questioned. Anyone who proposes an alternate hypothesis or questions the quality of the data and experiments gets blacklisted, name-called, and pushed to the back of the bus, or worse, pushed off the bus altogether — figuratively speaking, of course. How is this behavior by other scientists exemplary a free exchange of ideas?

Many of us who are willing to look into potential alternative causes of climate change speak quietly amongst ourselves in hushed tones because we fear the kind of vehement judgement that our more outspoken counterparts have faced. One example is Judith Curry who testified in front of the House Science Committee on March 29. Here is the link to her oral comments in her own words. If you weren’t aware that some scientists question the consensus, reading her statement might prove quite enlightening.

Personally, I like to read everything I can find about alternative explanations to most super-popular theories because I am proud to be a scientist in the truest sense of the word. I like to keep an open mind, and it would be wonderful if those of us who do could speak above a whisper when we meet.

Weather Blog

Resilience and adaptation are necessary in any climate.

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It doesn’t matter to me which side of the conversation you land on when discussing whether or not the climate is currently changing faster under post-industrialized human influence. It really doesn’t. I have read enough from scientists on both sides to understand each side’s perspective and some of the possible alternative explanations for the current warming trend. I’ve also read enough to know that there will always be more to read, so don’t think I know it all. I would never make that claim.

I will, however, not have to stick my neck out too far to say that there are two things that humans have always been pretty good at — well, most humans anyway — and those are resilience and adaptation. The few societies in the past who were not are the very ones that are the subjects of speculative documentaries based on geological, archaeological, and anthropological findings. Did the Minoans disappear because they were weakened by famine caused by a huge volcanic eruption and fell victims to rival societies? Did the Mayans disappear because they over-forested their land causing drought and driving their populations back into the coastal areas where water and food were more plentiful?

There are a number of ancient societies that arose and fell under sudden and mysterious circumstances — giving even the most unusual hypothesis a tinge of credibility. I mean, I’m not saying it was aliens, but…

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

ancient sea level

From NC DEQ. Historic northeastern N.C. shoreline, 125,000 years ago. Image credit: Peter Parham, 2007.

A fact of history — and even prehistory — is that the climate changes. Sea levels rise and fall. The atmosphere warms and cools. Volcanoes erupt, continents move, and on extremely rare occasion, giant space rocks wreak havoc by falling on our little blue planet. Assuming that the latter doesn’t totally destroy us all, we adapt, we move, we develop new technologies, and we survive.

One other thing we do: we plan.

Learning from the past helps us to plan for the future. Scientists and engineers discover and develop new ways to understand the world around us and enhance how we interact with it. That newly found knowledge and those break-through technologies can be used to mitigate our risk and build our resilience in an ever-changing world.

Some articles and research that I have read recently have rejuvenated my optimism about facing the future — not just personally, but on a societal scale.  Two examples: a Durham company invested in technology that had not even been proven yet, but is now being tested, for a power plant to be able to capture and reuse all of its carbon dioxide emissions. A Native American tribe in the desert southwest is already adapting to a warmer and drier climate while at the same time improving access to healthy food for its people.

What makes these two stories stand out to me today is the amount of acumen and ingenuity required to see those ideas through to actualities.

It takes vision and planning to come up with new ways to deal with a changing environment. It takes open-mindedness and understanding to see other people’s visions and dreams and to help make the ones that are built on solid foundations become realities. It takes a whole community’s effort to be resilient — meaning it takes scientists, engineers, public officials, planners, neighbors, and you.