Climate and Weather: Does your TV weather reporter get it?

You hear, again again, that climate and weather are not the same thing. This has led to assertions such as "you can't attribute a single weather event to climate change." But climate and weather are not distinctly different. Climatologists and meteorologists have made statements like this because people do confuse and conflate current conditions and weather forecasts on one hand with climate systems and climate change observations and modeling on the other. Saying "climate and weather are not the same thing" is a convenient segue into a discussion of how certain conclusions may be invalid or at least, underpowered. For example, we have seen that certain types of American voters change their opinion about global climate change depending on the current weather. Those who self identify as Independents "believe in" climate change if had been unusually hot over the previous 48 hours, but if it had been cooler than expected over that period of time they don't accept the truth of climate change as readily. This is conflating and confusing weather and climate in respect to one of the most important differences between the two: time scale.

Weather and climate can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. That analogy is limited but useful. So, if one is going to walk around with weather in one's pocket, there's going to be climate in there too, just like if you are going to walk around with maple leaves in your pocket there's going to be some loons in there at the same time. One can also think of weather as the short term and, possibly, geographically smaller face of climate, the latter being big in time and space. Thus, thinking of the two as "not the same thing" would be like thinking of the tail of a tiger as not the same thing as a tiger. That is somewhat true but if you yank on the tail, there will be a tiger there asking questions about that.

Over the last several months, we have done a pretty good job of putting aside the incorrect notion that a particular weather event can't be linked to climate change. There are minimally two ways that the two are linked for a given weather event. One is that a weather event is what it is because of energy (heat) in the air and on sea and land (but mainly sea) surfaces and the distribution of water vapor in the atmosphere. Both of these things, heat and water, are different now than they were 100 years ago, or 30 years ago, because of climate change. Therefore, every single weather event, being functions of heat and water distribution and dynamics, is different than previously because of climate change. Some say that the extra energy raises the baseline for weather, but I don't like that analogy because it is directional. Raising the baseline sounds like everything will then be more of something, more of the same thing (more hot, more wet, for example). But in fact, weather with climate change can be more wet or more dry (really, both, at the same time but in different places, or both in the same place but at different times) because of the reconfiguration of the water cycle due to climate change. Same with heat. Under climate change, we have increased extremes of both heat and cold (though on average conditions are warmer, but you need to average things out to see that). So the "raised baseline" explanation makes it harder for people to understand both floods and droughts as well as both heat waves and cold snaps, as being more severe as a result of climate change.

Rather than referring to a raised baseline, I'd rather refer specifically to a change in the configuration of heat and water. That is more accurate and people can understand that. To use a more appealing metaphor, one could say that when the various elements of the climate system, as a committee of forces and raw materials, sits down at the table to make the weather these days, that committee consists of individuals with much more polarized attitudes so the result is a bigger range of outcomes. Classically, we anthropomorphize the elements, Old Man Winter, the North Winds, giants bowling in the sky; Under climate change these characters are feeling their oats and demanding more, and the result is less compromise and more fluctuation between extreme outcomes.

The baseline metaphor does work well for certain specific areas of climate, though. For example, as the ice melts every year and reforms on the Arctic Sea, the baseline of ice reduces every year (thus the loss of "old ice"). Or, the sea level rises due to melting glaciers and thermal expansion every year, so the baseline for storm surges and coastal flooding, as well as the twice daily high tide line, goes up over time.

The second major way that climate and weather are linked (not unrelated to the first) is through configuration of major features of the sea and air. This is more complicated, more unknown, more recent, and more scary in some ways. If you follow the news about hurricanes, you'll hear about a hurricane or tropical storm out in the Atlantic, and notice that the National Weather Service has drawn a line showing where that hurricane will go over the next week or so. That's pretty amazing when you think about it, given that over time hurricanes go in many different directions along many different paths. But somehow they know where it is going to go and they are generally pretty close to correct these days. They also know how strong or weak the hurricane will get over time.

The way they do this is by understanding the effects of huge masses of air, and the distribution of sea surface temperatures. The Earth's layer of air is like the surface of a fast moving stream. If you look at the surface of a stream you'll see that parts of the stream are up high, like a hill, and others are down low. If you look more closely, you'll see that most of the low parts are moving faster than the high parts, and if there are eddies (whirlpools) they are in the low spots. One could think of the air as acting like this, where the high spots are high pressure systems and the low spots are low pressure systems. In the atmosphere those high areas tend to determine where the low areas are going to form and where they will move, and how fast. A hurricane is just one of the lows, but more concentrated in energy than most (and with a number of other differences). The highs, typically less "visible" to us mere earthlings looking out our window (those are the clear mild days) are mapped at large scale and their configuration used to plot the future course of the big storms. (This is an oversimplification that ignores, fore example, the very important effect of jet streams, which actually require math to understand. I have noticed that any atmospheric system that requires calculus to describe causes severe weather. Just sayin'.)

Although the air covering our planet is very different from a stream surface, it has high and low areas and if you know where everything is on one day, all the highs and lows, you can be sure they are not going to be too different the next day. We also know the direction in which these features will usually move. In other words, the distribution of high and low regions in the atmosphere is measurable and predictable, to a very large degree.

With climate change, the basic configuration of lows and highs changes. We have seen a fundamental change in the way air is distributed in the far north, around Canada, Siberia, and farther north to the Arctic. These days, the air does stuff ... climate stuff ... in that region fairly often that it used to do only occasionally. A result is that the distribution of warm and cool air is different, thus the heat waves and cold snaps. Another result is the direction in which low pressure systems get steered during certain times of the year and in certain regions; thus, Superstorm Sandy hitting New York and New Jersey. Superstorm Sandy, a hurricane, was supposed to turn right. All the other storms turn right. If a storm hits the Northeastern US it hits it from the south before turning right, but usually a glancing blow or as a much diminished storm. Sandy got big and turned left instead of getting smaller and veering right. Climate change caused that weather event.

I mentioned sea surface temperatures as one of the changes that affects the overall configuration of weather qualitatively and not just quantitatively. Not only is the surface of the ocean generally warmer, but where the warm spots are has changed. Recently, the Gulf Stream has stalled. This means that warm water that normally runs up the US coast and disperses across the North Atlantic is hanging around in the Western Atlantic longer, and that area thus get warmer. For this reason, any of those big tropical storms and hurricanes that normally go north and get weak are going to go north and stay strong, or even strengthen. Then, more of them will turn left instead of right because of the new configuration of air masses. This means that all those people who have moved from New York to Florida over the last 50 year to get near hurricanes can move back to the Northeast and still have their hurricanes!

You can see a pattern here. Climate change alters both quantitative and qualitative aspects of climate. Quantitative changes in weather involve more extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) and more extreme water related conditions (floods and droughts). Climate change alters the qualitative aspects of climate in such a way that what happens where and when has shifted. Quantitaviely, more North American spring and early storms may have more tornados; Qualitatively, tornado alley now includes a big swath of Canada, and Dixie alley (the southeastern tornado region) will probably have more "off season" storms. Quantitatively, we may have more tropical storms form or transition to hurricanes, and those hurricanes may be stronger than before. Qualitatively, where they go seems to have changed; Historically, a very large percentage of Atlantic hurricanes go north, turn right, weaken, and make Iceland and Svalbard foggy and wet, but now some of those storms will stay strong and turn left. We have yet to see if this will qualitatively alter Nor'easters, to bring them ashore more often, but quantitatively storms like Nemo are clearly more common than they were decades ago. The Great Storm of 78 was a once in a lifetime storm that was not expected to happen again any time soon. Since then, that sort of storm has become commonplace in New England.

And this all brings up a problem. For some reason, possibly innocent reasons possibly nefarious ones, many TV weather reporters, many of whom are meteorologists, have been on the denialism side of global warming. Here in Minnesota, we once had three main news stations with weather. One of them had a meteorologist who occasionally downplayed climate change (in those days, it was always called global warming) and even got snarky about it. Another weather reporter, who was a meteorologist, seemed to be quit open to the idea that climate was changing. (I never watched the third station so I don't know what was going on there.) Over time, the former became a more vehement climate change denier, and the latter a more outspoken climate hawk. The former always gave good weather reports. The latter always gave outstanding weather reports. The former is still at his station reporting weather but I think he stopped talking about climate change. The latter is Paul Douglas, who to all Minnesotans is a hero and icon of intelligent weather forecasting.

Then a thing happened that often happens in Minnesota. We are a donor state to the rest of the country. We produce great local politicians, like Hubert Humphrey and Water Mondale, but then thy go off to the White House or Congress and become nationally important. A Minnesotan took the luke warm trend of putting the wheels on your skates in a row and turned that into Rollerblades, which the world has embraced. Many years ago a quiet non-assuming Minnesotan with a cabin on the lake strapped barrel staves to his feet and got his friend to try to pull him around behind the motorboat on a rope. Today, waterskiing is everywhere.

Paul Douglas left his post as meteorologist at WCCO (CBS) a few years ago, and at that point I pretty much stopped watching local news. WCCO still had Don Shelby, and I still had to watch the news for various reasons sometimes, but without Paul giving the weather, really, what's the point? I can get mediocre weather from the Internet. But Paul had plans, apparently. He founded a new network which you may or may not have heard of called Weather Nation, which is now on several cable channels. It's like the Weather Channel but different. I don't get the Weather Channel but I do get Weather Nation, and that's what I watch. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I tune in when Paul is doing one of his overviews, but usually it is someone else. He's not the weather forecaster any more, he's the owner. (And if you knew the details of how he got his start on TV that would be even more interesting!)

Paul raised a lot of interest in climate change when he published a "Message from a Republican Meteorologist on Climate Change" last year. Yes, there are some good Republicans. Well, there's Paul, anyway. Do read the letter, and send it to all of your Republican friends and relatives!

Paul Douglas was one of a handful of meteorologists featured in a recent NPR report.

Last March, longtime Minnesota meteorologist Paul Douglas, founder of WeatherNationTV, posted an impassioned letter online urging his fellow Republicans to acknowledge that climate change is real.

"Other meteorologists actually emailed me and said, 'Thanks for giving voice to something I've been thinking but was too afraid to say publicly,' " he says.

Douglas is part of a group pushing to tighten certification standards for meteorologists.

"If you're going to talk about climate science on the air," he says, you would "need to learn about the real science, and not get it off a talk show radio program or a website."

(Here's the audio of that report.)

What if. What if over the last few decades most of the TV meteorologists were Paul Douglas, or at least, like him. The general public would have been informed of climate change the best way possible, by understanding the nature of climate and how it is changing from the view of the local weather one experiences. That is possible and reasonable because climate and weather are not different things. They are two overlapping views of the way air and water on this planet work. If every TV meteorologists had been like Paul Douglas over the last 20 years, I'd venture to say we'd be 50 ppm of Carbon Dioxide lower than we are now and more on our way to a green economy. We'd have a chance to address this problem of climate change.

We can fix this whole thing with two simple devices: A time machine and a cloning machine. Somewhere in a small town in Minnesota, perhaps there is some innovative guy named Ollie Knutson working on that....

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The term "climate change" is a Republican denialist propaganda victory. Global warming is what is happening; the climate change we are experiencing is not a normal passive occurrence, but a result of it.
For a relationship between climate and weather, see (it's not easy to read and follow) James Gleick's _Chaos,_ in which MIT meteorologists conclude that there is no climate, it is only the summation of weathers.

By David Formanek (not verified) on 20 Feb 2013 #permalink

David, actually the term "climate change" was initially a right wing pushoff, but it was then systematically grabbed and used by the climate hawks (a little like "obamcare") because we don't want to ignore other very important outcomes of the release of copious fossil carbon into the atmosphere. Large storms and ocean acidification are results that don't match the label "global warming" and the latter is not about warming at all. At a more immediate level, big changes in the distribution of both hot and cold air masses and changes in ocean currents, etc. are related to warming but themselves are not necessarily warming.

So now you'll hear "climate change" as the term used by all of the pro-environment activists. Or at least, they should be.

Gleick's writeup is insightful and interesting and worth a read. But, our understanding of climate now compared to then is hugely more advanced. It also can lead people to think that we can't understand climate, what with all those butterflies interfering with the process. At the time Gleick wrote that, there were huge unknowns in how climate worked and how it related to local weather. Glieck's book came out in 1987. The idea of ENSO emerged during the 1980s and the understanding that it was actually one of the butterflies did not become clear until after 1990, for example.

"Human-caused global climate disruption" is perhaps best, but probably hard to get adopted.

Also, Greg, you may be a little ahistorical in terms of the evolution of the use of the terms. GW had the early start thanks to Wally Broecker's original coinage, and CC got a leg up ~1990 with the IPCC/UNFCCC, but AFAIK was never a term especially favored by the right wing. Environmentalists used GW predominantly until fairly recently.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 20 Feb 2013 #permalink

oh, yeah, acidification. OK.

By David Formanek (not verified) on 21 Feb 2013 #permalink

OK, wrong. :)

I did see the chart, thanks.

Re right-wingers, what I observed (first-hand, extensively), but starting only maybe in the middle of the last decade, was a pretense that "alarmists" were shifting to use CC because GW had been discredited. Is that what you were referring to? Subsequent to that, I think there has been a tendency to shift more toward use of CC, not because of right-wing carping but because of a growing awareness of non-temperature-related effects that CC seems to encompass better, albeit far from ideally.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 21 Feb 2013 #permalink

I think this larger phenomenon may have played out differently (somewhat) among different subgroups of people.

Is your meteorologist a certified meteorologist? If so there will be a little blue rectangle, with indecipherable letters, somewhere on the screen from time to time.

Climate is the average over the last 30 years. Climate change happens as the new year is added, and the now 31st year dropped off. Thus the drought of the 1950's no longer has any effect on the climate of Texas. This is the usual climate change, and not what is discussed here. Here we are talking climate change as an effect of continued, fairly rapid, global warming. The question about a particular weather event is how was it affected by increased global temperature. It is generally a matter of rate and frequency change, which is difficult for many folks to understand.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 22 Feb 2013 #permalink