Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Climate Science and the 2012 Election

By: RickyRood, 07:41 PM GMT die 31o January, anno 2012

Climate Science and the 2012 Election

I came from a family that subscribed, in the 1960s, to both the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Technology Review. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is the magazine that, during the Cold War, famously published a clock set a few minutes before midnight. This clock was the evaluation of those at the Bulletin of how far we were from the, well as my grade-school self understood it, the end of the world. The cause for concern for the end of the world was nuclear war.

I have had cause to recall my Cold War childhood recently when my sister told the story of my brother going to roof of his building during the 1965 Northeast Blackout with a fine bottle of wine – or perhaps, cognac, to await the end of the world. His presumption was that the blackout was the darkening of the cities to make them more difficult targets for the bombers. I remember, in the 1960s, finding comfort when the new issue of the Bulletin would come and the clock had not moved forward, and I was quite excited if it moved backwards. I was surprised, recently, when I read that Bulletin had moved the clock one minute closer to midnight because of “inadequate progress on nuclear weapons reduction and proliferation, and continuing inaction on climate change …” Looking at their website you will see that the Bulletin maintains efforts in Biosecurity, Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Power, and Climate Change. The article by Cohen and Miller, Climate Change 2011: A Status Review of US Policy is an excellent summary of the current situation in the US. The final sentence of their essay is, “That action is extremely unlikely to occur unless climate change comes to be seen as a practical, rather than ideological, issue.”

Looking at the political landscape, climate change has fallen from the political discussion; it is a subject that cannot be talked about(some of my writings). Maxwell Boykoff has an excellent op-ed piece in the Washington Post entitled A Dangerous Shift in Obama’s ‘climate change’ Rhetoric. At the center of this piece is how climate change has implicitly been consumed in discussions of energy security, alternative energy, and clean energy. Though the warming of our climate is strongly linked to our burning of fossil fuels, there are many ways to achieve energy security and to develop alternative energy that do not address the causes of global warming. The pursuit of clean energy depends on the definition of “clean,” and this word is easily co-opted by, for example, the reduction of mercury emissions from coal.

Ultimately, we have to talk about management of the climate if we are to address the problems of human-caused global warming. We cannot address one societal challenge with the idea that we will fix the climate change problem by good fortune. When I teach this idea in class, I invoke my experience in management and, namely, it is simply not responsible management to anticipate achieving an important result without someone, some organization, having the responsibility for delivering that result.

Yet we live in a time when politicians are vilified and run out of office when they talk about climate and climate change. As Boykoff noted in his piece, President Obama avoids the climate issue because it is such a political hot button that it completely disrupts and halts progress on any issue where it is invoked. There is the recent incident where an essay on climate change was purged from a collection being put together by Newt Gingrich. I like to think that a couple of the candidates pulled out of the Republican primaries because they felt that their integrity would be too seriously comprised by having to, essentially, lie in order to obtain the trust of their voters.

Bob Inglis was voted out of Congress in 2010. Recently he wrote a piece Conservative Means Standing with Science on Climate Change. Ultimately, Inglis is arguing that if ALL costs of our energy use are incorporated into the equation, then the cost of fossil fuels would be much higher and alternative sources of energy would be more attractive. This coupled with elimination of all subsidies for energy costs, Inglis argues, would allow the market to make the right decision about energy and, hence, the climate. This full-cost accounting is enticing in its philosophical simplicity, but there are many profound implications. It does require accepting the notion that our carbon dioxide waste is harmful to the environment, the assignment of cost to that harm, and a process of linking that cost to energy sources.

As a strategy, addressing issues of clean energy, energy independence and energy security are more politically pragmatic than addressing issues of climate change. They offer a path towards addressing climate change; they are part of the best-we-can-do-at-this-time strategy. However, our inability to actually talk about solving the climate change problem means that we will not address the problem; we will elevate our risks; we will continue to impact negatively our economic and technological competitiveness.

It has fascinated me over the years at how both elected officials and government appointees make far more sense in what they say after they are outside of their government positions. I was a minor manager in the government, and even at my level, I was motivated to saying and doing things that were not the best thing to do to address a problem. Rather, what I did was the expedient and possible and it did advance the problem, but it was not either the best or most cost effective decision. This places the post-government truth teller, like Inglis, into one of the most important roles in advancing difficult problems like climate change. It also, however, points out the stunning inefficiency and ineffectiveness of our politically based determination of priorities in the development of knowledge-based environmental policy. We look knowledge in the face and deny its existence. We make our convenient arguments for the need for more research in the ill-posed pursuit of the illusive final facts. We fall into the diversion-motivated process of always asking for the next piece of information in what can be a never ending series of information discovery.

I found the October/November 1969 Technology Review in a box of Space-Age memorabilia I packed up from childhood. This issue was entitled “Man Among the Planets,” and the first article was “The Modification of the Planet Earth by Man,” by Gordon J. F. MacDonald. MacDonald in 1969 argued that we had already altered the planet, and that changes produced by humans were already at the scale “caused by nature.” He warned that we needed to do research into large-scale, man-made, and inadvertent changes to our environment. He called for the development of climate prediction. Since 1969 we have taken the observations, we have developed the theory, and we have determined unequivocally that the Earth has warmed and that we the fuel-using people are the primary reason of the warming. As MacDonald called for in 1969, we have placed a lot of emphasis on climate and environmental research, and the results of that research have provided actionable information – knowledge. We look at that knowledge in eye and, as a society, we deny it. We look away. Perhaps, if we look away then it is not really there.

Looking forward to the 2012 election, I don’t expect that climate change will be an oft articulated issue. The issue out front will be jobs, and the prominent link will be made between the exploitation of fossil fuels, new jobs, and energy security. Our approach to climate change will remain quietly in the hands of those savvy enough to use the unique knowledge provided by climate projections and those post-government truth tellers who no longer have to look away.

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Using Predictions to Plan: Case Study – La Nina and the Missouri River (1)

By: RickyRood, 06:11 PM GMT die 14o January, anno 2012

Using Predictions to Plan: Case Study – La Nina and the Missouri River (1)

Back in November I wrote an entry on whether or not we could use the prediction that we would have La Nina conditions in late 2011 and early 2012 to anticipate, for example, whether or not there would be a another historic flood in the Upper Missouri River. A little personal micro history: During August of 2011, I was at a meeting of a panel which is writing a report on climate modeling. That meeting included climate-savvy water managers talking about the information from climate models they might find usable. During the meeting on the news, there was the story that seasonal forecasts predicted there would La Nina conditions in late 2011 and early 2012 ( Climate Prediction Center Monthly Outlook). I asked people at the meeting how they would use this information in their planning for 2012. To be fair, this question was out of the blue, but I had this idea that this seasonal prediction was definitive information when compared with the information that comes from century-long projections from climate models. The century long climate predictions might provide information that some characteristics of El Nino and La Nina will change. With adequate analysis of this information, interpretation of the information, and then guidance or translation of this information, then informed decisions about, for example, reservoir design might be made. But I was curious, given a forecast for a particular season, what would you do?

I have introduced a lot of terms in that paragraph. I will define some of them.

First for those who need information on El Nino and La Nina, these are names given to two parts of an oscillation observed in the tropical Pacific Ocean. In the El Nino phase, the eastern Pacific, off of Peru for instance, is warm. La Nina is the opposite, the eastern tropical Pacific is cold. This is our best known example of behavior where the atmosphere and ocean behave in concert together – and we have proven that we can predict it. (NOAA LaNina Page, El Nino @ Wikipedia) We have known for some time that these changes in the Pacific cause or influence preferential weather patterns in other parts of the world. This excites people about being able to do seasonal prediction. In this case there is some oceanic forcing of the weather – or perhaps, when the ocean is considered part of the weather prediction problem, there is information about what the weather might be like for a particular season in a particular place. Concretely, for example, when there is an El Nino, people who worry about floods in California go on high alert (for example).

Translation and guidance - There is a lot of information that comes out of a weather and climate model. All practitioners of modeling know that you can’t simply read off the temperature in Des Moines 9 months from now, much less 90 years in advance. But there is the real possibility that there is usable information in the models if 1) we understand the mechanisms that are responsible for, say, stream flow in the Iowa River, and 2) we have an understanding of the ability or inability of the model to represent those mechanisms. That is, if we can find the right knowledge, often a matter of finding the right people, then we can put together this knowledge in a way that is usable. This is what I mean by translation. It is the translation of knowledge from one discipline expert to another in a way that makes that knowledge usable. That is, to provide guidance. (Lemos and Rood on Useful and Usable)

OK – going down that path I introduced another term that I think demands more explanation. Mechanisms – when we look at a specific event like the 2011 Missouri River flood, we look for what factors come together to cause the flood. In the article that was referenced in the November blog, it was pointed out that there was an extraordinary snow cover on the Great Plains, and then a lot of rain on that snow, that caused melting, and collectively the accumulation of a lot of water that had to go downstream. So in this case, by mechanisms I mean what caused the event to happen. Perhaps the most important mechanisms that a climate model must represent to be usable for regional problems are those mechanisms that provide water to that region.

I am never quite sure if my style of writing is clarifying or just more confusing, but I get enough positive feedback that I think I clarify points for some – so I hope that the way I laid out this basic information makes sense. One more term - What I want to do is to translate information from observational studies and model predictions and make that information usable by someone. From my teaching the last 7 years, I have concluded that it is this translation of information that is the most essential missing ingredient in the usability of climate knowledge. There is a LOT of information and knowledge, but it is not easy to use.

So in this entry, I want to start the process of information translation. I warn in advance that this is a hazardous path. I am going to look at a few papers, in sub-disciplines of weather and climate, in which I am not expert. Hence, I am likely to make some mistakes, and I am hoping that doing this in public, motivates corrections of those mistakes. I take off down this path, because another thing I have discovered in the past seven years is that people who are not consummate experts in a subject are analyzing information and solving problems all over the world. And, I presume to imagine that I am more expert than most, and I presume to believe people when they tell me that I am reasonably good at translating information across discipline interfaces.

So I all start the analysis– and this is not irrelevant. I flew over a swath of the Great Plains last week, and I was struck by the lack of snow. I read Jeff Master’s blog on the extreme state of the Arctic Oscillation. At the beginning of every problem I collect information. This information inventory process is essential. With a little luck, you will find information that when all brought together can be synthesized into a solution strategy or at least contribute to informed decision making. In fact, I have tried to structure a template to problem solving for a project I am involved in, and it is here at glisaclimate.org. (What’s a GLISA?) I collected together a bunch of references that I thought might inform my translation. What, I am going to do now is extract the information from some of these references.

The first paper I am going to look at is by Bunkers et al. from the Journal of Climate in 1996. I chose this paper for a couple of reasons. First, a lot has been written that 2011 Missouri River flood had a La Nina influence. And, thinking about floods, one usually thinks about did it rain a lot? This paper is something of a sanity check, do we see changes in the rain in the Missouri River basin due to La Nina?

Bunkers et al. paper focuses on the “Northern Plains,” which is approximately North and South Dakota. The Missouri River and the Red River of the North are important drainages for these states, and they were in historic flood in 2011. The authors look at data as far back as the late 1800s. That is about as long as any record that we have in the United States. The short story of their findings is that they find that during El Nino, there is significantly enhanced precipitation in the months April through October that follow the onset of the El Nino. For the La Nina phase they find significantly less precipitation for the months May through August following the onset of La Nina. However, we cannot stop with the conclusion, El Nino = wet, La Nina = dry. El Nino and La Nina are often viewed as 2 year long events, and in the second year following the onset of El Nino it is usually a bit wetter than in years with neither an El Nino or a La Nina, but during April and May of that second year it is drier than average. The second year following the onset of the La Nina, it is in general dry. There is also temperature information in the paper, but I am going to keep my focus on precipitation for now.

Let’s recall the problem we are trying to address; namely, 2011 was a La Nina year with a huge flood on the Missouri River, and another La Nina is predicted for 2012, will we have a similar flood? One of the first things it makes sense to look at is the precipitation in the Missouri River basin. This paper looks at part of the Missouri River basin, and area where there were floods, and at least as far as La Nina is concerned we would expect less, not more, spring time precipitation. This seems contradictory to our 2011 experience.

Returning to the Bunker’s et al. paper, there are years when the relation described above did not hold. Bunker’s et al. extract seemingly robust signals, but there are exceptions to the rule. The exception to the rule requires us to consider the mechanisms that might be in play for a given year. We arrive therefore, at a problem of tailoring the information for a particular application. The relation that Bunkers et al. derived between El Nino / La Nina and precipitation in North and South Dakota is quite strong. So if you look at a climate model and it tells you that there will be more or less intense El Nino and La Nina cycles a century from now, the long-term water planner for Fargo might be able to anticipate the water system needed for her grand children. The statistical information might be enough – might, it requires more thought. For a particular season, however, we can’t use this information in isolation. It is just part of the portfolio.

So we have a sanity check that tells us that, indeed, there is documented variability of precipitation in the Missouri River basin, correlated with La Nina. But, at first blush, the La Nina variability in this region is towards drier conditions. We also, know, that what determines a flood is far more complex than “it rains a lot.” So while looking at the paper above gives us some good information, it motivates me to step back and think about all of the pieces – or mechanisms – that might work in concert to produce a flood. And it motivates me to seek whether or not such events are happenstance, or whether we can use our knowledge to anticipate, better, such extreme events. This series of blogs will go on for a while.

Figure 1. Characteristic position of wintertime jet streams during La Nina. From ClimateWatch Magazine: “The jet streams are high-altitude, racing rivers of air that can influence the path of storms as they track over North America from the Pacific Ocean. The jet streams meander and shift from day to day, but during La Niña events, they tend to follow paths that bring cold air and storms into the Upper Missouri River Basin. Map based on original graphics from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Adapted by Richard Rivera & Hunter Allen.”

Pilot Project on La Nina and the Missouri River Basin.

Link to webinars.

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2012 Climate Events: The start of the term

By: RickyRood, 06:55 AM GMT die 04o January, anno 2012

2012 Climate Events: The start of the term

Last week I gave my summary of what I thought were the most important climate change discoveries or news of 2011. Of course, my choices were a bit arcane, but that’s me. I did not talk about the remarkable extreme weather and climate events of the last year – really last 2 years. Others have the knowledge and do that better than I, and, staying close to home, I will refer you to Jeff Master’s Blogs and Chris Burt's Blogs.

There were a couple of temperature facts that struck me: 1) The last month when the global mean monthly average was below the 20th century average was February 1985. There have been 321 consecutive months with the temperature above the 20th century average (link from NOAA), and 2) This graph from the World Meteorological Organization’s Provisional Statement of the Climate (link to statement):

Figure 1: From WMO Provisional Statement. Temperature difference (anomaly) calculated for 1961-1990 average. La Niña years are marked. La Niña years should be cooler that average based on natural variability. 2010 was the warmest La Niña year on record, and the 10th warmest year on record.

This graph shows a systematic trend of the years which should be cool, the La Niña years, getting warmer. This combination of a warming trend in the years which should be cool years and more than 25 years of global monthly means being above the long-term average are simple and compelling measurements of the warming earth. Plus remember during this time of persistent warm months, we had that period of the Sun being inactive, and hence, also being a cooling influence (an old blog to remind you of that).

This information coupled with measurements of increasing carbon dioxide emissions noted in the last entry, well I will not be teaching that we can avoid dangerous warming in the next century.

So what are the other things that have struck me as interesting going into the Winter 2012 semester at Michigan?

1) At the top of the list is a judicial ruling that the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard is, in fact, unconstitutional. It violates the interstate commerce clause that governs commerce between states. Frequently, environmental law evolves through commerce law and the assurance of open markets between the states. Ironically, at the center of the ruling is ethanol.

2) Next on the list is that in 2011 the leading U.S. export was gasoline and other refined petroleum products (from Wall Street Journal). This is a consequence of the recession, high gasoline prices, and more fuel efficient vehicles. This is significant enough that refineries in Philadelphia are likely to be closed. There are all sorts of interesting facets of this news – energy, economics, technology, and climate change.

3) Reindeer: The warming in the Arctic has been much higher than the average global warming. Here is the 2011 Arctic Report Card. This report documents large changes in the atmosphere, sea ice and ocean, and snow extent, glacier mass and permafrost. There are efforts to rescue reindeer. There is a threat because the warming temperatures means there are more ice storms, rather than the snow associated with colder temperatures. This encases their food. This combination of changes, persistent over many years, again, is indicative of cumulative changes and systematic warming.

4) That United Parcel Service has been able to reduce significantly their transportation carbon emissions, while increasing deliveries. This includes efforts on vehicle efficiency as well as attention to routing and traffic engineering. (Brown goes Green) This proves that we can make a difference on more than an individual scale, and that government investments at the margin are important for developing environmental policy. The government money mitigates risk.

5) And just to confuse us all: Manatees in Florida are threatened by cold temperatures. The deaths in 2011 were high with cold weather listed as the greatest threat. What does that say about weather, climate, climate variability and climate change? If I get the question, I will start here.


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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

About RickyRood

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.

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