Opinion: Climate Change Communication

 

I may, perhaps, be providing a less popular view or one which isn’t the “flavor of the week”. But I’ve been hearing a lot of people recently in science discussing the communication of climate change. There has much criticism of how some have chosen to communicate. Examples: Statements considered “dire”; assuming moral or intellectual superiority if someone disagrees with the most sound parts  of the science; being condescending, etc.

First off…I do agree with the idea that people need to treat people right and fair. Do not treat people like they are less than you or unnecessarily scare them into submission. We need to communicate what we know and how we understand it and listen to what people have to say.

But with that said…

The science of climate change (and it’s main mechanism…global warming) has been gaining scientific ground since the 1970s. The understanding of the greenhouse effect and carbon dioxide goes back to the mid-1800s. I was born in 1984. Climate scientist James Hansen went before Congress in 1988 to give the realities of what climate change means. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UN was formed in 1988. It’s 2017. The climate of Earth has warmed dramatically since then and as a result we are witnessing impacts on our world from more extreme meteorological and climatological events, extinction rates 1000 times higher because of humans with a possible mass extinction event underway in the biosphere and millions around the world and increasingly direct impacts on human health. Meanwhile too many deny what is happening because data isn’t enough. And in many cases, many of the people we are trying to convince are not only disinterested in learning, but have a sharp anti-intellectual bent based on politics or even religion. I have no problem with people being politically conservative or religious, but that is the reality of who most of the “deniers” are. So are we not supposed to call out people who are grossly thinking irrationally or being outright deniers (not skeptics, skeptics can be convinced) in order to protect their feelings and “hopefully” convince them we are correct? Climate scientists are routinely attacked by denier politicians and on social media and their reputations dragged through the mud. Hell, even threatened. Who speaks up for the integrity of the science and scientists while we all sit around trying to be nice and protect the feelings of people who are not interested in what we have to say, respectful or not?

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Southern California Wildfires in Dec. 2017.

I guess the reason I’m rather sharp about this is because I think Americans largely discuss this topic from a position of privilege. In America, climate change is still a joke for many or largely downplayed. “Look at all this snow, I guess they got 5 inches of global warming hahaha”. “I get climate change is an important issue, but do people really think it’s as important as [insert political issue here]”. And other various statements. I think there are two issues at work here.

A woman wades through a flooded village in the eastern state of Bihar
Extreme river flooding in Bihar, India in August 2017.
  1. In the US, we are dealing with the impacts of climate change, but we (generally) still have the resiliency to face what’s happening. In the developing world, this is not the case. There have already been significant increases in extreme events relative to the mid-20th century (droughts, fires, heavy precipitation leading to issues such as increased property destruction, even more importantly, crop failures putting more people at risk of undernourishment). And in some places, there’s sea level rise becoming a problem. In the developing world, this is not a game, or a joke or something to be denied. It’s in their face. Even if individual event/event types can’t be conclusively attributed to climate change, understanding climate change is a *systemic* process of our climate heat engine, adding more energy can cause more extremes across many categories. How much to developing nations realize these growing extremes? They’ve realized it enough to basically demand the industrialized nations who have caused a vast majority of the warming of Earth via 20th century emissions, to work to limit warming to as low as possible and pay for their mitigation measures. Unfortunately, they are largely ignored because their countries are small and not economically influential enough (Paris Agreement basically is business-as-usual lite), so the world is failing and they will suffer the worst impacts of global failure first.
  2. Climate change is to outright deniers “something that’s always happening” or even to many of those who understand the basic science a more significant concern of the future. 2100 comes up a lot. Or perhaps “We have 10 years” which was since the late 1980s. How many times can we have 10 years to seriously discuss these problems? Climate change is happening now and changes *are* going to accelerate and be abrupt as we move forward. How can we discuss these issues if too many people think they know better than a PhD with 30 years of research experience? If the PhDer asserts in a blunt manner that they know better, we might think that’s intellectual superiority and unfair assumption as we all have different experiences beyond education. And technically that’s true…but if one is degrading someone because they are educated and they trust what they see over data, can we call it what it is? Anti-intellectualism and in some cases even moral superiority as it may be based on religion or politics is just as bad if not worse to our society than anything. This is clearly something anyone can be out of line on.
  3. Us “intellectuals” seem to be having debates about how to best communicate climate change. We should talk about the worse case scenarios, should be have lots of hope and solutions, this and that. My view? Tell the truth! How can we do anything about climate change if people do not actually have an appreciation of what we are facing in terms of how it can directly harm human society and our biosphere? I’ve noted that even many outside of climate science do not fully appreciate what is happening now and how bad it could be. The “worse-case” is not…it is the path we are on in all of its unpleasantness unless we make the necessary changes needed. Every time I hear “stop being alarmist” I hear “don’t tell the truth”. It’s not being alarmist to discuss alarming things. This used to be an issue in meteorology. The US didn’t used to issue tornado warnings for fear of causing panic and freezing people up. Well, they didn’t know what was coming and were target practice for tornadoes smashing their towns. Yes, provide actionable info. “Go here to learn more”, “Vote for politicians who care about you and your children’s health and prosperity”…connect climate change’s shift to more extreme conditions to extremes which have already occurred and discuss how they will become normal as new extremes appear. “Yes we’ve always had droughts, but these droughts will come in more rapid succession, which is why we must have mitigation policies to prevent this from happening”. Tell people how these changes are already happening. Give people options how to act, but be real, otherwise, why should they be concerned about the issue? Especially when we as scientists get more bogged down about how everything supposedly gets attributed to climate change vs. simply providing a strong message about the seriousness of the situation, especially NOW, not just the future.
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Carbon Dioxide concentration history over 800,000 years.

Respect goes both ways and if I’m going to respect the views of someone who doesn’t automatically agree with the science, I expect that person to respect my views and intelligence. Otherwise, I won’t trash that person, but I will move on. Some (and perhaps most) people are NOT looking to be convinced. And that’s something science communicators have to face. Not just trying to respectful, but also respecting yourself and not allowing lack of openness, compromise or cognitive dissonance stand in your way to providing knowledge. I’ve learned this from my experience as a meteorologist who are used as target practice all the time for supposedly being wrong 50% of the time (we are quite accurate), or anger over warnings (which have saved thousands of lives over decades). Climate change communicators should be respectful, be blunt, say things the way it is (consensus and personal scientific view), but not afraid to respectfully point out incorrect views and statements they KNOW are wrong and not afraid to move on if someone doesn’t want to listen. Most people will or will not figure it out on their own time, anyways.

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Carbon Dioxide emissions scenarios and projected temperatures based on climate models. The world is on the business-as-usual path-RCP 8.5 for global average temperature near 4.5 degrees C/8.1 degrees F. The Paris Agreement would likely yield a temperature by end of century of over 3 degrees C average/5.4 degrees F globally. But nasty impacts are already happening now with temp near 1.2 degrees C/2.2 degrees F.

Oh and more thing. If you don’t regularly even attempt to communicate climate change to people, don’t lecture others on how they should do it. I particularly don’t want to hear the “Now is not the time to talk about climate change” meme. I discuss these issues to people whenever I can and have encountered this criticism. If you have a problem with how its done, do it and do it better. It’s actually one of my motivations for creating this site. People who care about these issues care about the seriousness of it and the people and animals it is and will harm further. Trust me, communication is even more challenging than you believed and chances are you do not understand just how serious it is even if you think you do or even some of the latest science, which is evolving rapidly. The focus needs to be on helping the citizenry be educated on these issues so we have a healthy planet as well as defending our integrity from those who would diminish our importance in informing society.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

(pictured at the top is a version of the famous “hockey stick” temperature curve by Mann 1999).

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Life Update

I thought now would be a good time to update on my life as some big changes are ahead. My fiance, son and I will be moving to St. Cloud, MN at the beginning of January. I’ve been accepted into the Geographic Information Science master’s program at St. Cloud State University. GISci is the study of the theory and applications of geographic information systems (hardware and software apps) for collecting, storing, and manipulating location data for visualization, analysis and modeling. I will be pursuing a second master’s degree (first is in Geosciences – Applied Meteorology from Mississippi State in 2016).

Our primary reason to move is to be closer to my side of the family. My Mom, grandparents and many cousins all live in the Minneapolis Metro area. St. Cloud is less than a hour away from where many of them live. However, I decided after much thought, to return to school for GIS because I’ve had a lot of interest in the technology and applications of it since I was a meteorology/climatology major at the University of Nebraska and there are many career opportunities for those with expertise in the technology and theory of it in many fields. Meteorology is *much* harder to get into (which I knew going in), and while I certainly am open to meteorology and experience (more on that in a bit), I want to gain much greater knowledge in a highly valued field. I’ve taken a few GIS and cartography courses as an undergrad and required intro course as a graduate student, but there is much left for me to learn which could go a long way toward career prospects. I’m doing the thesis-track option (my first masters was non-thesis), but I’m still formulating details on what I want to research, beyond ideas I briefly discussed in my graduate statement of intent.

On another note, for the 2nd year, I’ll be doing online mountain weather forecasting for the Fire Weather & Avalanche Center, based in northeast Oregon. The FWAC is a non-profit organization which does forecasting (mostly volunteer) for fire weather and snowfall and avalanche hazards, focused on northeast Oregon, although weather is discussed throughout the Pacific Northwest. The focus in particular is on back country recreation and travel. I will begin my weekly Saturday and Sunday 48 hr forecast shifts this weekend through this winter. Again, mostly volunteer, but valuable experience which regularly utilizes my skills as a forecaster. I’m hoping to have involvement in the fire weather operations next year. In the meantime, look for links to my Oregon mountain forecasts for the FWAC posted on my Twitter and Facebook feeds as they are written. The interactive mountain weather forecast page is HERE.

It will be a busy couple of months, but the changes should be very positive!

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–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

 

Five Year Anniversary of Landfall of Superstorm Sandy

Five years ago today (October 29, 2012), the post-tropical remnants of what was Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the New Jersey coastline as a hurricane-force windstorm, causing destructive straight-line winds and historic, damaging surge from the North Atlantic extending from the Jersey coast north into the New York City Metro Area, with historic flooding of lower Manhattan.

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Image of extremely large Hurricane Sandy by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite on October 28, 2012. Sandy would become the largest tropical cyclone on record in the North Atlantic Basin.
Sandy produced widespread wind gusts of 75-90 mph across portions of New York and New Jersey with heavy rainfall totals of 7-10 inches across parts of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Storm surge was Sandy’s main cause of significant damage, with wind damage and flooding rainfall additional impacts. The post-tropical “superstorm” caused a 10-13 ft storm surge which damaged and destroyed homes and businesses along the Jersey Shore and Hudson Waterfront, with a record 13.88 ft water rise reported at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan.

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Damage by Super Storm Sandy in Brooklyn, NY (“Proud Novice” on Wikipedia).
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Super Storm Sandy damage in Mantoloking, NJ taken on October 30, 2012. (US Air Force).
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The flooded Brooklyn-Battery subway tunnel in NYC on October 30, 2012 (“vcohen” on Wikipedia).
Sandy’s expansive storm surge was more intense by multiple factors. As it came poleward, it grew significantly in size, a typical phenomenon for tropical cyclones moving into the mid-latitudes. However, Sandy’s weakening and mid-latitude interactions caused it become the largest North Atlantic tropical cyclone on record, producing a huge fetch (extensive wind over long stretch of open water). This fetch allowed for the building of significant ocean waves and piling up of water toward the shallow continental shelf of the Atlantic coast of the US. And although Sandy weakened somewhat and became “non-tropical”, this did not matter as the very large wind field remained and forward momentum of the very heavy ocean could not settle down in time before pounding the coastline with destructive surge.

In addition, Sandy made landfall at high tide, enhancing the storm’s ability to flood dry land areas and cause direct damage with battering waves. I will also note that this “flood reach” was even greater because of climate change-induced sea level rise. Global sea levels have risen 9 inches since 1880 and while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN) continues to indicate a likely sea level rise of up to 3.2 ft by 2100, many other reputable scientists have suggested the possibility of multi-foot sea level rise occurring this century as the result of exponential glacial melt feedbacks in Greenland and Antarctica. Perhaps as high as 6.5-16.5 feet by 2100 (see references #1-2 below). This, of course would be catastrophic for vulnerable coastal cities for both livability but initially for any places already exposed to storm surges. New York City is one most at risk.


Sea level rise has also been locally enhanced along the Northeast US Coast because of abnormally warm waters building offshore for years, leading to increased thermal expansion of the water surface upward. This may also be a result of climate change-induced weakening (#3) of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). While Superstorm Sandy wasn’t “caused” by climate change, it was part of an increasing regime of more extreme weather events (and events with with more extreme hazard variables) and a prelude to what will be far more frequent in the coming decades.

Sandy was retired after the 2012 Hurricane Season, causing 233 deaths from the Caribbean to the United States and producing an incredible $75 billion in damages (only 2nd to Hurricane Katrina). An incredible and devastating meteorological event which we can hope we continue to recover from and our country will be better prepared to mitigate against next time.

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Surface analysis at 5 pm EDT October 29, 2012 showing Superstorm Sandy just offshore the coast of New Jersey pounding the Mid-Atlantic to New England. The intense pressure gradient (shown by the isobars) caused areas of gale and storm force winds over the Great Lakes because of the expanse of the storm.
Scientific References (for the nerds like me!):

1- Hansen et al. 2016. (scientific technical)

2- New science suggests the ocean could rise more — and faster — than we thought (Washington Post/Oct 17)

3. Youtube video of conference presentation (2016) by Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf on weakening AMOC. Can also refer to (#1) on this issue as it relates to potential effect on ice sheet dynamics.

Biggest WxClimo Story of 2017…Wildfires.

Fires have been raging across the world this year with unprecedented scope. Major wildfire outbreaks have been notable from tropical rainforests in Africa and South America to the taiga of Canada and Russia. Even Greenland has seen an unusual amount of fire activity on the edge of the ice sheet. This year, Western North America, and the Iberian Peninsula of Europe have been particularly hard hit with life-threatening fires (see HERE, HERE, and HERE). Although fires occur every year with variable impacts, a significant upward trend can be tied to climate change allowing both natural and human activity to ignite and expand the destructive intensity of wildfires.

This video by Climate Central summarizes the impacts of these fires so far this year and their connection of climate change. This recent article by The Observer also summarizes fires around the world and the impacts of climate change.

 

(The featured satellite image above is from October 9, 2017 courtesy of the European Space Agency).

Hurricane Ophelia Undergoing Extratropical Transition as it races for Ireland and the UK

Update at 6:50 pm CDT Sunday:

Ophelia appears to have nearly completed the process to Post-Tropical based on satellite imagery, with the whole arrangement of frontal boundaries and more asymmetric wind field and lack of any significant tropical characteristics outside of some convection (thunderstorm activity) northeast of the center. Ophelia is still a hurricane-force cyclone (likely top sustained winds 75-85 mph) and impacts still expected to quickly increase over Ireland Monday morning with rain, damaging winds and dangerous surf and coastal flooding.

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Hurricane Ophelia…at least it was still considered one at 11 am AST…is quickly transitioning to a hybrid post-tropical cyclone. I made up a schematic using current infrared satellite imagery. You can clearly see the transitioning hurricane becoming surrounded by cold, dry air on its’ back side, with its own warm, moist tropical air mass contributing to warm air advection ahead of it. And you can the developing frontal structure…cold front developing offshore Portugal and warm frontal cloud structure fanning out far to the north of the low center and offshore Ireland. The cyclone itself should be fully post-tropical in the next few hours, if it can’t be considered so already. Impacts (moderate to heavy rain and damaging winds) begin their arrival  Monday morning. My forecast for Ireland (written last night) can be found HERE.

Surreal view…a major hurricane near Western Europe.

Incredible views today…

Hurricane Ophelia set two records: 1) The highest latitude major hurricane on record in the North Atlantic Basin, set beginning at 35.9 N and 2) the most easterly major hurricane on record in the basin, set beginning at 26.6W. It will likely weaken below major hurricane force by Sunday morning as it begins to undergo transition into a frontal cyclone from its interaction with the jet stream and further reduction of sea surface temperatures below 72 degrees F/22 degrees C. However, it will be one for the record books.

Fortunately, Ireland and the United Kingdom will not need to worry about a major hurricane hitting them. They will need to worry about a likely damaging windstorm from a post-tropical hybrid cyclone. The post-tropical incarnation will develop frontal characteristics as it initially weakens, but its strong inner warm-core will continue to release some heat into the system, re-intensifying it as it becomes fully embedded in the mid-latitude westerlies and races into Ireland and the UK Monday afternoon and evening. My updated forecast for Ireland is below. Still expecting winds capable of downing trees and causing major power disruptions. The forecast for intense winds is high in confidence as computer models hone in on the center of the storm either coming ashore the southern tip of Ireland or just grazing the western shore. This is favorable for a “big blow” over the entire island. Residents need to be prepared to stay indoors and stay safe during the day Monday.

Ireland Forecast for Post-Tropical Cyclone Ophelia:

 

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Forecast zones (North and South) used for my forecast.

 

Monday Morning (After 7 am local time): For the southern half of the island, wind gusts of 40-50 mph (64-80 km/h) will develop during the morning, increasing to 60-85 mph (97-137 km/h) by mid to late morning from the coast, northward. The strongest gusts will be along the coastal areas, especially the south shores where isolated gusts may approach 100 mph (161 km/h). For the northern half of the island, wind gusts to 40 mph will develop mid morning , increasing to 50-60 mph late morning, from south to north.

Monday Afternoon (After noon): For the south, wind gusts of 60-85 mph (97-137 km/h) early afternoon with isolated to 100 mph/161 km/h along the south/southeast shores). For the north, wind gusts of 50-60 mph (80-97 km/h) early afternoon will increase to 60-85 mph by mid afternoon with isolated gusts to 100 mph along the northeast shores, spreading from south to north into the late afternoon.

Monday Night (after 5 pm local time): For the south, wind gusts will gradually decrease to 40-55 mph (64-89 km/h) during the early evening from south to north. For the north, wind gusts will gradually decrease to 40-55 mph during the mid to late evening (after 7 pm) from south to north.

Sea conditions will be hazardous all around Ireland with wind gusts in excess of 100 mph (161 km/h) likely in the south coastal waters and in the Irish Sea.

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High-resolution Swiss model showing the tightly-packed circulation of then Post-Tropical Cyclone Ophelia reaching coastal Ireland midday Monday. Damaging winds will be spreading throughout the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland by this time. Shown for illustration of the overall forecast scenario.

Hurricane Ophelia now a very rare Category 3 storm south of Azores

Hurricane Ophelia has strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph as it moves south of the Azores. It is moving over prime atmospheric conditions, even as it overcomes waters of only 25 degrees C/77 degrees F. In normal tropical environments, tropical cyclones need water temperatures of 26 degrees C/79 degrees F to maintain themselves and warmer to significantly strengthen. However, the colder temperatures in the upper-atmosphere associated with the mid-latitude troposphere is providing Ophelia with ample atmospheric instability (warm, moist air rising into cold air aloft intensifying thunderstorm activity). In addition, mid-latitude dynamics are playing a role…the approaching frontal system and associated upper-level trough of low pressure approaching Ophelia is giving the system a “poleward outflow jet” to pull air away from the system and allow the surface low to strengthen.

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Meteorological Analysis of Category 3 Hurricane Ophelia. Favorable dynamic and thermodynamic set up allowing system to strengthen at high latitude, over cooler waters for hurricane maintenance. With that said, water temps under Ophelia are running 2-3 degrees C above normal, also allowing it to have its unusual intensity near Western Europe.

See my previous post from late last night for my wind forecast for Ireland. Strong winds should begin to impact the island midday Monday (local time), with stormy conditions lasting into Monday night. The southeastern Azores will see some gusty winds and 1-3 inches of rain as it passes by this evening and night.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey