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Does all this extreme weather mean anything?

Posted by David Epstein  July 9, 2012 02:40 AM

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What a great afternoon across the region. Temperatures will be in the lower 80s with sunshine. The rest of the week here in the northeast looks perfect with sunshine and warm temperatures. We will enjoy sun and clouds through Friday with highs 84F-89F and in the 50s and low 60s at night. Since the forecast is so straightforward, it gives me an opportunity to look back at the summer so far. Over the past few weeks parts of the country have endured extreme heat. In some cases heat like this hasn't been seen in decades. Fires, severe storms, temperatures over the century mark all seem to indicate a shift in the "normal" weather patterns. But is anything really going on with the climate or is this just part of the regular cycle of weather that occurs. How do you feel about what is going on? You can give me your thoughts here or on Twitter @growingwisdom. For some parts of the country the summer of 2012 is turning out to be quite miserable.

Is the Climate Becoming More Extreme?

That is the question again being posed this week after record heat gripped the country last week. The heat of late June and early July has been called "extreme" by many in the media. Meteorologists often say that weather is a balance between extremes. We know that extremes occur and do so on a regular basis. During any given year most days do not have severe weather. However, you can be sure that just about anywhere on the planet on any given day there are major anomalies of weather. Over the past several years, severe weather has been used to directly or indirectly support ideas about the climate. When an idea about the climate gets created, those that made up the idea or support it often use these extremes as "proof" of their hypothesis. color-media-hype-web.jpg For the non-scientist, this can seem like a logical connection, but in reality is a faulty one. A good scientist knows the best conclusions come from those experiments where only one aspect of the test is changed and from multiple data points, not just those around the edge.

Heat, drought, climate change and perspective

The media loves a good story and the heat, combined with power outages, makes a good one. Unfortunately, several people have lost their lives due to the heat and it was very uncomfortable for hundreds of thousands of people. But just how unusual, in the grand scheme of things, is all this? For me, this is simply the reality of nature. We as humans try to control our environment yet the reality is that control is a facade. Sure we can cool and heat our homes, and build them with all the modern conveniences. However, floods, winds, forest fires, earthquakes, tsunamis etc. can wipe all of it away in a few minutes. Extreme heat can make it difficult to function and when you combine that with the loss of power, even deadly.

We tend to go about our daily lives in robotic fashion until something major happens. Then, everyone talks about it for a few days before returning to the previous routine. The heat of the past few weeks jolted many out of that hypnotic trance. When the power goes out and you are faced with having to feed yourself and keep yourself cool, all the other mundane affairs of life fade into the background. Crisis force us to look to the 'why' behind the event. Why was a particular storm so bad? What caused so many days of heat? This line of thinking is often followed by wondering how unusual the event was and if the planet might be undergoing a change that is anthropogenic or caused by humans.

There is a yin and a yang about fear. The adrenaline rush can be intoxicating when riding a roller coaster or going to a horror film. Yet, the fear of a catastrophe can be uncomfortable and unsettling. Last week, Seth Borenstein who writes for the Associate Press wrote " If you want a glimpse of some of the worst of global warming, scientists suggest taking a look at U.S. weather in recent weeks. Horrendous wildfires. Oppressive heat waves. Devastating droughts. Flooding from giant deluges. And a powerful freak wind storm called a derecho. These are the kinds of extremes climate scientists have predicted will come with climate change, although it's far too early to say that is the cause." That last part is quite important. "it's far too early to say that is the cause". Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of the causality of these freak events ends up getting lost in the noise of the rest of the article. As is often the case with much of the media during these so called extreme events, there is little regard to science and much regard to selling a newspaper or magazine. Here are a few predictions for you about the rest of the year. Deadly heat will occur somewhere on the planet in August. Records are going to be shattered in many States over the coming months. Flooding will cause devastation to businesses, perhaps even entire towns this year. Next winter, snow will cave in roofs and cold will cause more fatalities. Unfortunately, that is just the result of weather. There are many other scientists, far more intelligent on climate than I, who have posed great questions about the recent blast of heat in the United States. Dr. Ryan Maue tweeted on July 5th "So, extreme heat broke 3,000 records. Out of how many? 3,000, 300k, or 3 million? How many records weren't broken -- is a good question." I would agree with that question. Yes, thousands of records were set last week, but what does that really mean? It makes for a great headline, but so what? Can we or should we make conclusions about the climate based on the heat wave? Dr. Judith Curry who is a climatologist and chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has written that we need to question more the causality behind changes in weather patterns and that we need to do much more investigating. By creating different computer models that change variables in multiple scenarios we will better understand the climate's direction and what might be causing any observed changes.

Past drought
Take a look at the series of maps below. I was clued into these from Dr. Roger Pielke's blog Climate Science. The first several images are historical drought maps. The last map is the drought index as of last week. Notice that, at other times in the past, there have been severe droughts throughout the country , even here in the northeast. As a matter of fact, according to one of my favorite weather book's by David Ludlum,The Country Journal New England Weather Book much of the northeast was in and out of drought for a five year period from 1961-1966. Back in the dust bowl era I can guarantee you people were trying to make all sort of conclusions about the weather. I can imagine a family in the mid-West sitting around the table blaming the new flying machines for all the changes in the weather. My own grandmother use to insist that the reason for the extreme weather was because of the testing of the atom bomb in the 1940s. This drought we are observing now, while extreme is not unprecedented.

1965 drought.jpg
1988 drought.jpg
July drought 2012.jpg
Back to the media's take on climate and weather. It's impossible to make any conclusions about climate based on extremes in weather. Further, I would go so far as to argue that we know less than we know, and, we don't know what we don't know. This idea that many in the scientific community have about why our climate is changing and their own confidence in those ideas is without validity. Climate models don't model the atmosphere in its entirety. Further they don't account for all the changing variables accurately enough to make conclusions about the "why" behind what we observe.
Causes of climate change
Ponder this for a moment. Here are five, of many variables that affect the climate. 1. El Nino/La Nina, 2. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (water temperature in the Pacific) 2. Atlantic Decadal Oscillation (water temperatures in the Atlantic) 3. Arctic Oscillation (pressure changes in the Arctic) 4. Volcanoes, 5. Sunspots. If each of these five variables only had two modes, say on and off, that would give us 10 different variables to work with and many combinations. In reality, it's impossible to figure out the nuance of the modes and there are millions of possible ways all the different permutations can interact with one another. Then there are all the other variables like the rotation of the earth, shifting tectonic plates, land changes and more that need to be considered. Before we can say with certainty how the climate might change in the future, we need to better understand how these quantities affect it now.
So, is the Climate Becoming More Extreme? That was also the question asked in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes released this spring. That report, "MANAGING THE RISKS OF EXTREME EVENTS AND DISASTERS TO ADVANCE CLIMATE CHANGE ADAPTATION" asked the same question. "Is the Climate Becoming More Extreme?" That document which contained nearly 600 hundred pages, one line, referring back to that question struck me. The report's answer, "none of the above instruments has yet been developed sufficiently as to allow us to confidently answer the question posed here." So next time we experience one of these extreme events and an attempt is made to make conclusions about the climate, read it with some skepticism. Extreme events happen and they shouldn't be used to make conclusions about the climate.

Gardening this week
I garden for hours and hours each week. My hands are often hurting from pulling weeds and digging. However, a few years ago I started using long-handled garden tools for some of the finer weeding in certain beds around the garden. These tools are perfect for being able to do some precision weeding without bending over or using the repetitive hand motions that end up hurting me so much.

Remember, please follow me on Twitter at @growingwisdom and check out my latest videos at

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

David Epstein has been a professional meteorologist and horticulturalist for three decades. David spent 16 years at WCVB in Boston and currently freelances for WGME in Portland, ME. In 2006, More »
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