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My Head is Spinning

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:47 PM GMT on January 26, 2016

My Head is Spinning

Indeed, my head is spinning. The big blizzard, the temperature in 2015, and another really warm air outbreak in the North Pole. Not to mention, that I got a couple of very interesting emails at what I planned for the end of my ExxonMobil blogs, so I seem to have another one of those fomenting. It’s all the warmy-coldy, floody-droughty, carbon-dioxide denying, solar flary, lead tastes sweet, apocalypty, head-spinning blues.

This is perhaps my way of saying; I don’t have much going on this week.

First, the blizzard. I and many others watched the forecast with some apprehension. Almost exactly a year ago there was a similar blizzard, and the (small) errors in that forecast led to all sorts of criticism of the weather service and those communicating the weather forecasts. (My analyses from 2015, link1, ink2) This year it seemed to me that all of the principles involved worked very hard to keep the message tamed and to communicate the possible outcomes. There are many others analyzing the forecast and the communications, and I leave it to the interested to look them up. I refer, only, to the piece on Weekend Edition on how the predictions and forecasters were faring during the storm. It features Angela Fritz and Jim Cantore.

What struck me about the blizzard in my role of model user and climate-change blogger? It was an excellent forecast. As I watched the run up, largely from Bob Henson, the forecast from the U.S. Global Forecast System (GFS) ultimately had a contour with an upper range of 40 inches of snow. As it crept that high, the uncertainty in prediction of extremes, especially in precipitation (and even more so in frozen precipitation) – the uncertainty starts to become very high. Aside from intrinsic model limitations, I start to worry about the high temperatures in the ocean, and the calibration of the model’s representation of the evaporation, transport, and condensation of water. Which brings me to the second point, anecdotally, I think that the last three winters we have talked very warm coastal temperatures on the U.S. East Coast. And, finally, the definite climate-change effect, the Jersey storm surge. I am waiting for the Obama-Christie photo op. I also followed the electrical utilities' outage maps, and compared to previous blizzards, amazing absence of power loss. (I note that Larry Atkinson, East Coast sea-level guru, now has a blog on Wunderground).

As for the warmest year, NASA and NOAA did a joint presentation of the 2015 Annual Temperatures. For the record, here is a link to the slides used in the press conference. Perhaps a curiosity, Berkeley Earth came out with their “unambiguously” warm 2015 temperatures a couple of days before NASA and NOAA. I had an interview on WILS in Lansing, where I don’t think I said anything terribly wrong. My former student Ilissa Ocko has a good blog from the millennial perspective.

As for the warm North Pole, this seems really important to me, but I just can’t keep up. Looking forward to more in the comments.

I admitted it early. I don’t have a lot to add this week, so I am going to try a diversion. In a previous life I lived on the Chesapeake Bay and took part in the East Coast blizzard culture. I published this piece, Lessons of the Storm on how we learn, including how we learn from weather forecasts – good and bad. I reproduce a version here:

Lessons of the Storm

This morning I opened the blinds on the windows that look to the south, across the field, onwards to the Chesapeake Bay. The snow from the surprise storm was deep enough to cover the stubble of the summer’s corn. At the shore, the smooth white broke into the rough bay ice that was constantly cracked and stirred by the tides and waves. Beyond, the clear wintertime water of the Bay mixed with the blue of the sky. There was a curtain of ice folded over the edge of my roof, making a thick knobby pane, bright with the morning sun. The edge of the curtain shredded into a vicious fringe of glowing icicles. Below, from the holly bush, a mound of clouded ice was building upwards on the tip of a branch. There was a tenuous thread of ice connecting the longest icicle with the mound.

A mockingbird landed, less than two feet from my eyes. A drop of water splashed on its head, beading on its feathers. The bird, tailored in gray and white, reached and started to draw from the reliable stream of water running down the ice. Time and time again, the bird took long drinks. Occasionally a drop would land on its tail, another on its head, never startling the bird with a seemingly desperate thirst. I wondered if the bird searched simply for water by sight, smell, or sound, or if it knew to go looking for icicles. Does it learn to look for icicles wherever it flies during the day, or once it finds the source on my holly bush, does it only return? Is every new thirst another search?

The spikes of ice hanging from my roof, the little mounds on the holly bush, are like the lime and mineral deposits in caves. Stalactites hang from the ceiling, and stalagmites reach up from layered mounds on the floor. Rock-cicles formed by slow drips, each on their own seeming to fall away, but leaving a little relic that accumulates into brittle Gothic gardens. Was an understanding of icicles needed before we understood the caverns? As a scientist, I often wonder if we had not seen the birds flying, would flight have ever entered our minds? Can we only grasp the unknown with building blocks of the known?

The powdery snow from last week’s storm has been moved all around not only by plows but by days of cold winds. In the building where I work are four wings arranged like fingers spread apart. Within the space between the wings there have been whirlpools of air filled with snow. All of the snow has been moved from one side, leaving bare ground, to the other side, patterned in graceful dunes. These dunes are little different in form from the sand dunes of Death Valley. In fact, away from the dirty piles of icy rubble that line the streets and parking lots, you can see the American West in the snow. Dunes, slot canyons, hoodoos, and spires are sculpted and dripped next to retaining walls, behind piles of construction gravel, everywhere there are edges in the wind. It makes you believe in geology. Lessons come from one observation, and applying those lessons to understand other phenomena is one of the paths of science. We try to challenge those lessons. How well do they apply; how well do they generalize? If the lessons work, then we start to believe we understand, start to believe that we can predict.

It is when the old lessons fail that we learn something new. In the East we all have stories of blizzards that arrive, like this one, unannounced, from the South. Sometimes, we prepare for snow that never comes. The failed predictions are used to chide the weather forecasters. Meteorology is a science that, more that most, reveals its warts when the old lessons fail. Most physical science is deliberated in the arcane machinations of peer-reviewed journals, but meteorological failures play out with full and instant television coverage. Despite all of the glory and boast of supercomputers and sophisticated mathematical models, we are reminded that we are simulating a complex, perhaps chaotic, fluid using the best approximations that we can afford - that we can understand. Approximations.

The sophisticated models represent the lessons we have learned expressed as mathematical equations. The crudeness of the approximations and assumptions in the models sometimes surprises us with harsh, brilliant ice. It is pleasing to see Death Valley’s Eureka Dunes in the striated snow of your yard and think you understand the circumstances of mountain ranges and winds that build waves of sand seven hundred feet high. But you only can go so far trying to explain stalactites as stone icicles. We have to dissect and examine the similitude. Otherwise, every new thirst is a new search and soon we learn to only stay close to our holly bushes and drink from the stream that we know.


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