Tag Archives: hurricanes

Polar Vortex, Climate Change, Red Herring?

Wow, it was unusually cold last week. In a small fraction of the globe. For a couple of days. And what does that cold snap, that big wiggle in the Polar Vortex that carries high-atmospheric winds around the North Pole, imply about “climate change”, also known as “global warming”, also known as “global weirding”?

The answer is very simple. Nothing.

If you heard anyone suggest otherwise — whether they said that the extreme cold implies that there is no global warming going on, or they said that the extreme cold implies that global warming is happening — you should seriously question anything that person says when it comes to climate change. Because that person does not respect (or perhaps even understand) the difference between anecdote and evidence; between weather and climate; between a large fluctuation and a small but long-term trend. Or between media hoopla and science.

In the interest of an imperfect analogy: Let me ask you this. Are you generally happier, or less happy, than you were five years ago? Answer this as best you can.

Now let me ask you another question. Did you, within the last month, have a really, really bad day, or a really, really good one?

Does the answer to the second question have much to do with the answer to the first one?

Barring an exceptional recent disaster in your personal or professional life, the fact that, say, last Thursday your car broke down, you locked yourself out of your house, your dog vomited on the carpet and you got caught in the rain without your umbrella does not have anything to do with whether you are a happier person than you were five years ago. Being a happier person has more to do with whether you have a better job, a happier family, a better sense of self-esteem, and things like that. And even if you love your job, you know there are going to be really bad days in the office sometimes. That’s just the way it goes. We all know that.

It’s the same with daily and monthly and yearly fluctuations in the stock market compared to the slow but fairly steady century-long growth of the U.S. economy (both curves corrected for inflation.)

So why, when there’s a big fluctuation in the daily, monthly or even seasonal weather, do people jump up and down about what the implications are for the long-term trends in climate? Continue reading

Sandy: Amazing. Science: Amazing.

My neighborhood of New York City may remain without power for a few more days, but fortunately visible signs of damage are limited — none of the widespread destruction found along the immediate coast of the city and of nearby communities, where the sea rose and swallowed up land that had not seen salt water in many decades, even centuries.  Many trees are down, and countless houses and businesses are wiped out by the sea’s wrath, even entire beach communities. The numbers of lost homes are surely in the thousands, if not more, with 100 houses alone destroyed in a runaway fire in the neighborhood of Breezy Point, cut off from firefighters by the storm’s high water.

Unfortunately, many people along the coast, lulled into complacency by the fact that last year’s Tropical Storm (formerly Hurricane) Irene was a bit less furious along the coast than was forecast, decided not to evacuate. Unfortunately indeed, because the forecast for Hurricane Sandy was worse than for Irene, and this time, there was no lucky break to make the reality of the storm significantly less severe than the worst-case prediction.  I myself know of households who decided to evacuate at the last minute and almost didn’t make it out alive, and others who rode out the storm and found themselves in considerable danger. That so many people remained in harm’s way required “first responders”, as they are termed here, mainly members of the police and fire departments, to make many rescues, quite a few of which wouldn’t have been necessary had people heeded the warnings. For risking their lives to save so many others, the first responders are widely and justifiably hailed as heroes.

Also deserving of high praise, in my view, are some of the leading politicians and other civic leaders in our region’s states and cities.  There are quite of few of them whom I don’t agree with politically and whom I personally don’t like very much, but on the whole they all seem very smart.   And in this case they understood the risks, took them seriously, and made prudent decisions to order evacuations of areas in danger and to protect public property.  They deserve a lot of credit for their non-nonsense approach.

But I feel that there’s an important story that the press is almost ignoring.  There’s another group of people, little-mentioned in the media, who probably saved more lives and property than anyone else.  I refer to the experts at the National Hurricane Center (NHC), and more generally the various branches of the National Weather Service (NWS) and its parent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Continue reading

Guest Post: Anand Gnanadesikan, Oceanographer

I know Anand Gnanadesikan, professor at Johns Hopkins University’s department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, from when we were both studying physics as undergraduates in college.  He wrote something today that speaks with more authority than I could in my post earlier this morning, and it is a pleasure to make it available to you.

 

As Sandy approaches the coast I am very thankful for my former colleagues at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab who have spent decades trying to make better predictions of tropical cyclones. And the colleagues around the world who have spent decades developing the techniques of observing and modeling the physics of cyclones. Both the recurving of the storm and the high storm surge (currently already at major flood levels at a number of points between NY and DE) would have taken tens of thousands of people, at a minimum, by surprise. Kurihara’s first paper in the line of research that led to today’s prediction (http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/bibliography/results.php?author=1061) was in 1965. It took him almost a decade to get to the first three-dimensional model of a hurricane and another couple of decades to improve the models to the point where they showed useful skill.

Just a little plug — it is important to remember that this kind of event, low-probability, high impact, is what well-run government is for. Putting together a storm-surge warning system for NY Harbor is not something that a private company is likely to do — the chances of it being used in any given 10-year period are so small as to make it a worthless investment. And the research that goes into making a forecast like this involves understanding of small-scale turbulence, understanding the transfer of radiation through the atmosphere and its interaction with multiple scatterers and absorbers, figuring out how to put weather satellites into orbit and keep them running, figuring out how to incorporate this information in computer codes, getting these codes to run reproducibly on large numbers of processors… almost all of this was accomplished by people working on the government dime.
 

Anand Gnanadesikan