I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 5:21 AM GMT on June 06, 2011
Changing the Conversation: Extreme Weather and Climate
It has been an exceptional year of tornadoes in the U.S. Hundreds have died and several cities have been especially hard hit(Jeff Masters on Living on Earth). Ultimately, I will talk about these tornadoes and climate change and bring, at least temporarily, closure to my discussion on event attribution and climate change. (First in Series, Second in Series)
First, I want to write a couple of casual observations about forecasts and warnings. In 1953 there was a tornado in Flint, Michigan that killed more than 100 people. Many comparisons have been made between that 1953 tornado and the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri. One of the comments that I have heard is that comparing 2011 to other years in terms of risk to human health, we can say that the health risk is less in 2011 than 60 years ago. The logic in the argument is that we have many more people in the U.S. today, and hence, if the risk was the same, then more people would have died in 2011. Standing alone, this is a peculiar argument, but it got me to thinking about risk.
Several times this year I have heard mayors of towns say that the warnings they had received for either tornadoes or floods have saved many lives and property. If you go back and check the forecasts, there are cases when a high probability of tornado activity has been predicted several days in advance. When it gets down to actual tornado warnings, the mayors in interviews say that people had 25-30 minutes to prepare, to take cover. Compared with the 1953’s state of knowledge and the ability to forecast both these long-term forecasts and short-term warnings are stunning advances. What stands at the basis of these advances? Observations, predictive models, and the ability of models to ingest and use those observations in forecasting. There is technology, and there is a lot of scientific theory and plain smartness tied up in those models and their interpretation. When we talk about federal science budgets for weather and climate, we are talking about predictions and risk assessment and warnings and knowledge which provide the opportunities for individuals and organizations to make good decisions.
If there is less risk to human health in 2011 than in 1953, then much of that risk reduction is due to improvements in model-based predictions.
Back to climate change. In my previous entries on event attribution I argued that the media discussion of the attribution of specific extreme events, primarily, contributed to the political argument rather than to the communication of scientific knowledge. As such, the primary product of this media discussion is to build and maintain doubt. Since that last blog, Christine Shearer and I completed and published an article in IEEE Earthzine, called Changing the Media Discussion on Climate and Extreme Weather. All I will do here is to highlight some of the arguments that we made:
1) We assert that a journalist’s question that asks a scientist to provide a yes-or-no answer to whether or not an extreme event is “caused” by climate change is, scientifically, ill posed.
2) That scientists are part of the conversation, and it is their role to participate in such a way that leads to a scientifically correct question.
3) The question in number 1 is ill posed for a number of reasons, but at the top of the list is because it requires the scientist to suppose there are two climates: one with and one without anthropogenic warming. We only have one climate, and we see the warmer climate, the moisture air, and the extreme weather evolving in that warming climate.
If you’re interested read the article. More generally, there are some very good articles in IEEE Earthzine. Christine Shearer and I have gotten a number of good comments on the paper, and through it all, I was interviewed by Tony Wood of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who wrote a nice story. This led to me getting an email from a Hal Hartung who maintains a web site on Anthropogenic Peat. Mr. Hartung made an interesting comment to me concerning the discussion of global warming which is: given that greenhouse gases are well known to hold energy close to the Earth, those who deny an anthropogenic impact on weather, need to pose a viable mechanism of how the Earth can hold in more energy and the weather not be changed. Think about it.
P.S. One of my former students, Amanda Graor, wrote me to correct an error in the original posting of this blog. Here is her blog on volunteering in Joplin.
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