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Climate Science and the 2012 Election – Redux (1)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 4:04 AM GMT on October 28, 2012

Climate Science and the 2012 Election – Redux (1)

Rood Special in Globe and Mail on Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

Incredible Wind Animation This is live feed. So it changes.

NASA Animations

Washington Post Time Line and Important Questions

Scenarios and preparedness for Washington D.C. - Capital Weather Gang

Jeff Masters on Hurricane Sandy

Jeff Masters on Hurricane Sandy


We sit here in late October 2012 with the convergence of a hurricane with a strong cold front and a contentious and ugly election.

In this entry I will focus of that hurricane and cold front. The first place that I read about tropical storm Sandy was in the Washington Post on the 23rd of October. Jason Samenow wrote a blog about the prediction of an “extraordinary storm” and how the ensemble of prediction models used by the World’s weather services had divergent predictions. Since that time we have seen the models converge on their predictions of storm paths that target the middle Atlantic, and the storm has been given a Halloweenish name – Frankenstorm. I will return to the name later. This forecast has motivated all sorts of preparations and anxiety. I am in Denver, and the airport managers are alerting the local hotels of the likelihood of disrupted air travel. I am supposed to give a talk in DC next Friday, and I have already received notification of possible cancelation. (And, yes, I am thinking of Plan B travel.) We have yet to see how the forecast and the storm will play out, but I expect millions without power for days. Not sure whether it all starts as far south as Richmond, or Baltimore, or Rutherford, but I expect a large swath of power outages and flooding. To me, this basic prediction became the proverbial no-brainer about the 25th of October. If I still lived in the East, then if I were on the coast on the north-side of the hurricane, I would be buying the candles (actually, these days, the LEDs) and filling up the tub with water. I would be finding safe harbor. This storm is damaging from south to north, east to west.

Models: In these blogs I have been wandering through a series to demystify models and their use in scientific investigation. In the context of weather prediction and emergency planning this prediction is remarkable. The storm is predicted to cross the Mid-Atlantic coast on Monday night or Tuesday morning, October 29th or 30th. Going back to the first article on October 23rd, this is full 7-day awareness. 7 days prior to the event, awareness is raised, and we watch the story from the prediction converge day after day. We see nationwide response starting to take shape, with anticipation of power failures, floods, and travel disruption. Is there still a chance that the model predictions will all prove wrong? Yes. With each passing forecast period, however, this risk of forecast failure becomes smaller. We have over the past decade seen storm after storm disrupt the country, cause billions and billions in damage. We have seen reliable forecasts of these storms, and we have grown to expect reliability in model alerts and warnings. Yes, there is a chance that the models will be wrong, but our experiences show that forecast failure is not the place to bet your money.

Frankenstorm: OK the Weather Channel has decided to name winter storms. There are actually some good reasons to do this; namely, it might help in communication of alerts and preparedness. But Frankenstorm? So this is NOT the Weather Channel’s name. (Chicago Tribune on storm-naming challenges) Frankenstorm is obviously a clever name that is supposed to recognize the potential enormity of the storm – the tradition of Snowmageddon. I am about to make an argument that this type of naming-for-effect is symptomatic of a degradation of forecast information. I quote Nate Silver from an interview on Fresh Air. Silver makes the statement that weather forecasters are especially good at using statistical methods to improve their forecasts, specifically Bayesian statistics. There is a fairly long segment in the transcript if you want to read more. Quoting Nate Silver:

“They (forecasts) aren't perfect by any means, but now when you have a hurricane, for example, sitting in the Gulf of Mexico, they can predict the landfall position of that hurricane within about 100 miles, on average, three days in advance. Which means if you need to evacuate some key counties in Louisiana or Mississippi, you could do so. Twenty-five years ago they could only get within about 250 miles on average, which if you draw a radius, would take you everywhere from about Tallahassee, Florida to Houston, Texas. Not a very useful prediction at all.”

And then on the important distinction between the National Weather Service and broadcasters on TV.

“So here is a slightly important distinction to make, where the data we've seen the most impressive gains is from the National Weather Service itself. And they're scientists, they're very rigorous about what they do. They should maybe be distinguished from the local TV meteorologist who succumbs to various types of news media biases. Where it's been shown, for example, that local meteorologists have what's called a wet bias, which means they put more rain in the forecast than there really is.”

The interview then goes on talk about how “storm of the century,” Snowpocalypse, and now, perhaps, Frankenstorm are part of the exaggerated forecast-for-effect syndrome. It is interesting how communication can impact science.

Getting to the Election: So we live times that are ripe with, perhaps, political scrupulosity. So we now move to a set of stories on how the storm will affect the election (and here). The abstract in an article in the Post ends with “Indeed, the weather may have contributed to two Electoral College outcomes, the 1960 and 2000 presidential elections.”

And getting to Climate Change: So we have slow moving, powerful storms. We have the term Frankenstorm suggesting an unholy mix of weather events. In the past few months I wrote about the papers “The Recent Shift in Early Summer Arctic Circulation” and "Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes". These papers talk about a link between changes in the Arctic changing the steering of storm and slowing them down, making for more extreme event. We’ll see how it all plays out.

In January of 2012 I wrote an entry on climate change in the 2012 election. I ended it with this:

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.

Next entry I will look at the last four years and what has and has not happened with how we are treating climate change.


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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.