Teacup in a Tempest: the storm over Trump, NOAA/NWS, and Hurricanes

Among the many topics I really don’t want to comment on, but will anyway, is “Sharpiegate”.  To say that the US President is divisive is an understatement, and the sad fact is that American Politics in general has become so insanely partisan that it is almost impossible to comment at all without being accused by one side or the other of being in league with evil – evil being defined as “the other side”.  So there’s probably no upside to commenting on this.  However, there are some important points to be made, if they could only be heard over all the noise.  And sometimes you get lucky and manage to irritate both “sides”. So let’s try that.

I don’t know what was said in the briefing that resulted in President Trump tweeting that Alabama was potentially going to be hit by Dorian.  I’m assuming that seed was planted on Thursday the 29th or Friday, 30 August, based on the “cone of error,” a product few really understand how to apply and I think everybody who really understands hurricanes hates, but hasn’t figured anything else out yet.  In fairness to the President, like the blow-up over nuking hurricanes, I can see how someone might think Alabama was at risk.  People see a track forecast and often ask “what will happen next.”  And given the uncertainty in the five day forecasts, I can see how a briefer might have said “on that track, then in 6-7 days, or if the storm is at the outer edge of the cone, yes Alabama might be at risk.”  The tweet that started the firestorm came on Sunday, but by then the tracks and models had shifted.  This happens all the time – as a track shifts, people get an earlier forecast stuck in their mind and keep repeating it to others long after it is stale, causing confusion.  Since it was the POTUS doing the repeating, this put the NWS WFO in Birmingham in a tough position that, again, all of us in this business get put in all the time: I’d guess for every “you’re doomed and gonna die” I have to dish out, there are twenty “no, you are not at risk from this storm, that’s an old forecast.”  It does raise questions as to how often the President is briefed and, perhaps, his attention span.  But, objectively, this shouldn’t have been much of a big deal had everyone been reasonable.

Thursday Evening Forecast

Forecast Sunday Morning

This could and should have been quickly defused, but the US President and his team are “doubling down,” while the opposition is pushing this as a catastrophic failure indicating various psychological or character flaws.  Modern political leaders have an extraordinarily difficult time in admitting they were wrong, some (most?) to the point of pathology.  And their opponents love to take innocent or common mistakes and blow them up for short term advantage no matter what the long term institutional costs. Now both pro and anti Trump sides are blowing this up for their own political reasons because they think it gives them some tactical advantage.  Real problem or manufactured political fight?  Probably both in this case, but that’s not my point here.

What *is* my concern in this is the continuing corruption of science in policy debates and public safety.  I find it ironic beyond belief that many major news networks who don’t hesitate to use one-off long range model forecasts that go well beyond the NHC forecasts, sowing fear and confusion as they go, are now piously condemning the US President for doing what they themselves do virtually every 5 minutes during a storm. The sheer hypocrisy of this is staggering.  Equally odious is putting your scientific (not to mention intelligence agency) staffs in the position of having to back your political positions and cover for your mistakes.  It is something most administrations do.  It’s always wrong, and while both parties do it this administration seems to be taking the practice to new extremes.  It’s a dangerous trend.  If you want to say “they” are worse than “we”, I might not argue, but like the saying goes, if you choose the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil …

I’m also concerned that some scientific organizations, and some individual scientists and meteorologists, are now jumping into this debate in a way that is starting to feel, or is rapidly being turned, into partisan attacks.  The problem isn’t so much that they are wrong (many are in fact right about how this is evolving, and the potentially dire implications for government sponsored research and science applications), my problem is that they haven’t called out previous administrations for their abuse of the science because they agreed with the the politics of those administrations, or maybe they felt it just wasn’t bad enough, or both.   Unfortunately, like the climate change debate, this is dragging scientists (some willingly, most probably not) into political crap flinging that diminishes public trust in all of our institutions.

So for what it’s worth, here’s the TL;DR …

  1. That the President thought Alabama was at risk in the future, on Thursday or Friday, based on the Thursday/Friday forecast doesn’t bother me too much.
  2. That he was still saying it Sunday bothers me a lot: by then he should have had a fresh briefing. If not, that’s a problem. If he did, and was still saying it, we have another problem.  Either way, not a good situation.
  3. Attacking WFO/BHM is scary: they were doing their job.
  4. The media is being utterly hypocritical and self righteous over this – they extrapolate beyond the NHC forecast all the time, sowing fear and confusion.
  5. Scientists should vigorously defend the science, but tread carefully over being perceived as overly partisan.  Especially in the climate debate, some have already crossed that line, advocating specific politically based solutions rather than sticking to underlying problems, and evaluating the effectiveness of proposed solutions.  That kind of advocacy hurts credibility in situations like this.

Science is the only credible tool we have for understanding how the world works, and should be the underlying basis for devising policies that address the problems our society faces.  Once that credibility is lost, we are in fact doomed.  This whole debate, especially how it is evolving, is destructive and does not bode well for the future.

Dorian Update, Monday Morning 2 September 2019

From a purely forecast perspective, nothing changed overnight.  Obviously from a societal and action standpoint, things changed radically.  So lets look at the science, then the civics/politics (which is a lot harder to figure out sometimes!).

The NHC track forecast has been rather stable the last 5 or six advisories.  The logic behind it remains the same, that the steering for the storm has collapsed, and it will begin a turn to the north, then northeast.  The last few position fixes seem to indicate the northward drift has started, but it’s easy to be duped by wobbles.  Here’s the latest fixes and primary track guidance:

As always, the track that matters is the Official NHC track.  Here is the latest impact estimate, based on the 5am official forecast track:

The Bahamas is seeing devastating damage from this storm.  In purely economic terms, damage will likely be well over $5 Billion dollars, over half of their annual GDP.  So far there are only a few fatalities and injuries being reported, but communications is spotty.  The eye is over Grand Bahama, and as NHC just reminded everyone, don’t be fooled by the eye of the storm – the worst is yet to come with the second, stronger eyewall!

The coast of Florida is starting to feel the storm and it looks like it will take two days for it to move up the coast from West Palm to the Space Coast.  Hurricane/Tropical Storm Watches are in place up to the Georgia Border. People right on the Florida coast south of Daytona should be evacuating the barrier islands if they have not already done so, and otherwise following the advice of local emergency management. The window to safely get out of the way is closing.

North of Daytona, to the middle SC coast (Cape Romain/Georgetown), it’s a less clear situation, and worth a closer look and discussion. This is a powerful and dangerous storm.  Note this dicsussion is not to contradict what you are hearing from Emergency Managers – following their advice is definitely the conservative action in most cases, unless the risks of evacuating are higher than the risks of staying.  This is mostly to discuss the situation as to what is likely to happen, to reduce the fear factor that you will leave and have nothing to come back to. So this is not necessarily what the worst possible case. EMA’s tend to focus on very bad cases, and take a binary approach: stay or go, in their desire to make things simpler for the average person. The key is to evacuate from water, and shelter from wind (up to 90mph sustained if in a sturdy structure, otherwise evacuate if possible).  So I teach and use three categories of risk:

  • hazardous (meaning if you shelter you should be safe, even if you will lose power, or have some light damage, so if you are healthy and prepared it will be OK as long as you don’t do a Lt. Dan and taunt the storm),
  • dangerous (even being sheltered things might be unsafe), and
  • life threatening (even if you take shelter in a sturdy structure your life is at serious risk).

Ordinarily, as NHC advises, focusing on the exact forecast track line isn’t a good idea.  Storms can be quite large, and damaging effects extend sometimes 100 miles or more from the eye.  But Dorian is a smaller storm as these things go.  The area of significant damage extends roughly 40 miles left and 55 miles right of track, and the area of significant impacts extends about 50 miles to the left and 90 miles to the right.  The fact it will be decaying as it is moving parallel to the coast also changes the dynamics of damage quite a bit.

For the Georgia and Lower SC Coast, as well as the Jacksonville FL area, if you are on a barrier island, you should absolutely plan on evacuating.  A wobble left of track could quickly become dangerous, even life threatening.  So being ready to leave first thing in the morning (Tuesday) is smart.

For the SC Coast north of Charleston, and the Outer Banks of NC, there is more of a risk of dangerous to life threatening conditions even somewhat inland, so being away from the coast is a good idea.  The storm is between three and four days out, so again preparing is a smart move.  The turn might be sharper than the present track indicates, but don’t bet your life on it.

What about in the middle, the GA and southern SC coast?  In Georgia, a key problem is that evacuation orders and guidance often don’t seem to reflect local geographic realities.  Saying “east of I-95” may look good on a map in Atlanta, but here on the coast things are more complicated.  There are significant low marsh areas and rivers that go well past I-95 in Glenn county as well as south of Savannah.  Likewise, significant areas of the city of Savannah are somewhat protected from coastal surges from a bypassing storm, and inland enough that 60mph winds at Tybee are only 40mph in town – that’s a huge difference in impacts.  That said, on the Georgia coast, people on barrier islands, especially those who saw flooding from recent storms, should certainly prepare to evacuate, and do so in the morning if the northward turn is at or near the NHC forecast track. If you are in a mobile home, or any structure you do not have confidence in, evacuate. If the track shifts further offshore, you may want to re-evaluate things.  But be ready to go Tuesday.

As for possible damage, it doesn’t look so bad right now, other than right on the coast, and even that is on the order of the storms in the last two years rather than devastation.  As noted above, the storm’s dangerous winds are only forecast (conservatively, by the way) to extend about 50 miles to the left of track.  The storm center is forecast to be 80 miles off of Jacksonville, 90 Miles off of Saint Simons, and 70 to 70 miles off of Tybee and Hilton Head.  So the track would have to be off by 40 or 50 miles, and NHC tends to stay on the left (coast) side of the guidance when a storm is skirting the shoreline.  So expecting 50-60mph sustained winds right on the barrier islands with some coastal flooding (3-4 feet above normal tide levels), and 40mph winds once 10 or so miles inland) is probably reasonable.  That means power outages, big branches down, some light damage, the occasional tree down, that sort of thing.  So hazardous, but not dangerous.

Hurricane Dorian, Sunday Morning 1 September 2019

Dorian continued westward as expected last night. There are now tropical storm warnings up for portions of the Florida coastline.

If you get a sense of deja vu looking at the track maps, that’s because they have converged a lot and the primary models are grouped pretty closely since yesterday.  Over the next 5 days they are showing the westward push collapsing tomorrow, and the storm stalling before being picked up and steered to just off or over Cape Hatteras.  Here are the tracks, with the NHC track in red  …

Note the light blueish line heading off to the left and hitting Saint Augustine.  That’s the HWRF model.  Normally it’s pretty reliable, but for some complex reasons has been having a really hard time with Dorian.  At 96 hours (4 days) the average error for most of the models has been around 180 to 190 miles with Dorian.  The reference CLIPER model, that has no forecast ability other than climatology (history) and any modern model should beat easily, is at 216 miles.  HWRF is at 240 miles.  There was an image of an HWRF run posted yesterday without that context, scaring the folks in coastal GA/SC with a landfall south of Charleston.  It again illustrates why cherry picking models is a bad idea without context.

So on the official track, the northern Bahamas are in for a very rough couple of days.  The storm is essentially forecast to stall out over Grand Bahama, so barring a miracle Great Abaco and Grand Bahama are going to be devastated by this storm.

It’s going to be a nail-biting close approach to the West Palm to Space Coast areas of Florida.  There are tropical storm warnings up, and folks there need to be preparing for at least minor to moderate damage levels, as well as a lot of rain and storm surges of 6 to 8 feet. The rest of the coast is in the “minor damage/Power Out” level of impact, but storm surges could be 3-6 feet along most of the coast south of St. Augustine.  It’s looking like about a $10 Billion storm at the moment.  Most of the dollar value impacts are the heavily over-build Florida shoreline, but The Bahamas are in line for the worst humanitarian impacts.  Please keep that in mind.

For Savannah and Coastal Georgia (Brunswick, St. Marys, etc), and Beaufort/HHI area, as it stands now the closest passage of the storm is still about 4 days away, very early Thursday Morning.  For Savannah, closest approach is around 80 miles on the present track.  That means conditions will deteriorate during the day Wednesday, are remain blustery until late Thursday.  Exactly how blustery and rainy depends on some subtle track wobbles.  Even 20 or 30 miles makes a difference, but for now it looks like sustained winds in the 30mph range, so expect scattered power outages and some branches down.  There will likely be coastal flooding around high tide given the onshore winds.

Dorian Update, Friday 30 August (And a rant on models. Again.)

Bottom Line: Hurricane Dorian has started the expected turn to the west, and has the potential to strengthen before hitting The Bahamas.  As noted in the NHC Key Messages product, there is a hurricane watch up for the northern Islands, and people there should be executing their hurricane plans. People on the Central and South Florida should be getting ready for watches, warnings, and evacuation directions.  Georgia may see some effects of the decaying or remnant storm in 6-7 days, but it is way too early to say much on that.  More details at the end of this post.

The big picture hasn’t really changed all that much since yesterday, but the details have, and those can have a big impact on potential damage.  NHC has shifted the track a bit further south, and again the forecast speed has slowed down.   The forecast environment isn’t quite so favorable as was thought a couple of days ago, but Dorian will still likely be a major hurricane, it may even reach Cat 4 (130mph) before landfall. It be a dangerous, powerful storm.  Here’s the scary model track map …

(begin rant)
Once again, for planning purposes, all you need to concentrate on is the red line of the official forecast track.  All the talk about models is just stressful and confusing.  I was watching CNN last night, and like many outlets they made a big deal about  “The American Model” vs  “The European Model.”  Guess what: there is no such thing in either case. There are multiple models, and operating modes. used by the US National Centers for Environmental Prediction, NHC, US Navy,  and so forth.  Likewise, the European Center for Medium range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) has multiple operating modes for their Integrated Forecast System, including hurricane specific modes.  And the UK Met Office has a modeling suite (and they are I suppose European until Halloween at least!).  Not to mention the Canadian Meteorological Center.  What CNN and other members of the professional and amateur chattering classes are showing you are the graphics from the main forecasting runs of the GFS (the “American” model) and the ECMWF IFS (the “European Model”).  It especially irks me that IFS is touted as being so much better than any of the US models.  Yes, IFS is good, especially in some circumstances.  But last year the “consensus” models that blend multiple models (including GFS and IFS), such as the TCVA, or the Florida State Super Ensemble (FSSE) were better.

So which “model” was the best overall? Here’s the report from last year.  THE NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER OFFICIAL FORECAST TRACK.  So just stop it already!  If you want to use a model to illustrate some point, fine, but showing them because the graphics are prettier and animated, or to set up some artificial horse race competition, is just scare mongering.
(end rant)

As for impacts, The Bahamas and Florida look to be hit hard.  Here is the forecast impact map based on the 5am NHC Forecast …

As noted above, the northern islands of The Bahamas needs to be getting ready.  Dorian will be Andrew-like in damage to those areas.  Abaco and Grand Bahama (Freeport) are likely to be hit hard.  Currently the forecast landfall location is just north of West Palm Beach, putting the worst of the storm North of the WPB-Fort Lauderdale-Miami corridor.  Even on this track it’s a $38 Billion dollar storm. But shift the track a mere 50 miles south and it becomes well over $100 Billion dollars in direct damages.  Woah.  When you throw in economic impacts of the Labor Day weekend, if Dorian makes landfall at the expected intensity it will easily be in the top 10, and is on track to perhaps be the most expensive hurricane in US History …

In Florida the Lake Okeechobee area is often overlooked, but is also at great risk for flooding and ruptured flood control works, especially if as forecast the storm stalls.  People in that area should be especially aware of their flood zones.

Florida evacuations are going to be a goat rope. Follow the advice of your local EMA’s where possible.  Keep in mind the mantra: evacuate from water, shelter from wind.  Don’t get caught out on the road if things jam up, evacuating from wind if you live in a sturdy structure above the flood zone may actually be more dangerous than staying put.  It may not be pleasant, but better than in your car! This is an especially problematic storm in that it will put much of south and central Florida in storm conditions, with those spreading up towards the north, so to get completely out of the track would mean a journey to Alabama or North Georgia.  If in a flood zone or mobile home just get out.

What happens after day 5?  The NHC track ends at 120 hours for a reason: the uncertainties are just too great.  The global models  take the storm (or remnants thereof) across Georgia then either out to sea or up the east coast.  A warning here: there is at least one popular web site that has been showing the 850mb maps from GFS and/or IFS.  These look scary for Georgia, but the SURFACE winds were only 20 or 25 mph.  I suppose I’ll have to rant about that later.  So the bottom line in Georgia is what it was the last two or three days: we’re still more than 5 days from seeing anything from the storm, so best to just watch and keep out of the way of folks who need to move.

Dorian Doomwatch, Wednesday Morning 28 August 2019

Dorian continues to defy the odds to an extent, and is not only holding together but tracking to the right of the forecast tracks.  In part because of the small size, Dorian is not “entraining” dry air as a normal-sized storm would, so is holding together and even intensifying more than perhaps it should.  As always the two questions are where and how bad.

Here’s this morning’s “primary” track models.  GFS main has trended north towards the SEUS coast over the last 12 hours, indicating a ridge of high pressure will have a “weakness” the will allow the storm to turn.  The ever sainted ECMWF and the Navy’s model keep it strong, and Dorian headed to Central Florida …

There are lots of local (Savannah GA area) amateurs, semi-pros, and attention … um, seekers … talking a lot about GFS (probably because it’s scary for people on the Georgia coast and gets them more attention.  Let’s take a closer look at that.  Here’s the GFS family of tracks available as of this morning …

The blue line is the primary model that is often used to generate scary graphics.At the moment it shows the storm brushing Hatteras.  Last night it showed Dorian right over Savannah.  6 hours before that it was over central Florida.  Get the point?  It is too unstable right now to get excited about.  Note the brown line, and the cloud of gray lines.  That’s the “consensus” of the GFS ensemble model, based on multiple initial conditions.  and variations.  Again, very wide spread.  Also note that NONE of these got the last few hours right – Dorian is well to the right of almost all of these already.

That’s the background.  What should you do?   Simple: ignore all the noise and the amateurs and even “pros” throwing out this or that scenario based on one model track that happens to be hitting your house.  For planning purposes there is only one place you need to go: the National Hurricane Center’s “Key Messages” page. And be careful about using that “cone of uncertainty” – NHC has a video on it talking about what it does and doesn’t mean.

As for the estimated impacts, here’s the forecasted impacts in plain English, from my Haetta/TC based model using the NHC forecast track as of 6am …

Bottom lines: In Puerto Rico you should have already planned for a Cat 1 Hurricane.  Sadly, on this track and intensity, you’re going to lose power again, and the system is still pretty fragile so it will be out for a while.  The biggest physical damage risk to PR is probably flash flooding; the worst of the winds will likely be over the ignored and  neglected US Virgin Islands.  Estimates are if the intensity follows the NHC trend, damages will be on the order of $400 to $500 Million, but as noted yesterday, the humanitarian impacts are likely to be disproportionate given the still fragile infrastructure.

For Florida, the next 24 hours or so will start to tell the tale, and if folks should begin to freak out or not.  (You, of course, have a plan and don’t have to panic until maybe Friday when the track will be much clearer).

For Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, “Calm down, eat some fruit or something.”  As discussed above, if the ridge builds, Florida gets whacked.  If it decays a little, you might be in play.  If it decays a lot, it will stay offshore (think 1999’s Floyd).  We just don’t know which scenario will happen, and you still have time (assuming you have that plan) to plan your end-of-summer barbecue before you plan to flee.

Why you shouldn’t get excited about long range forecasts …

I ran across a weather blog yesterday (sadly, by someone with an AMS seal) playing up a possible hurricane hitting New Orleans next week, based on the GFS model forecast.  Here’s the forecast map in question, the 225 hour forecast from the 18z GFS/FV3 run on Tuesday, August 13th (the Tuesday Afternoon run).  Looks bad for the sweltering, drunken masses on Bourbon Street …

But, as a reader of this blog, I know that while the new models are better, global weather models still have a tendency to spin up vortexes, so I waited to see what the next run on Tuesday night showed before freaking out …

Oh, now it’s just a tropical depression or storm, and not a problem for the weekly NOLA Friday Night Bacchanalia.   But, what does that mean for my oil and cattle futures?  Lets look at the early morning (06z, Wed. 14 August) for the same time (03z Friday, August 23rd, now “only” 213 hours away) …

Hey, where’s my storm?  Now it’s just a blob of rain on the Alabama/Louisiana border?

Forecast tracks from the global models have improved a lot in recent years, once a storm spins up, and are better at forecasting formation in the short term (0-5 days).  But this example is why these long range models are not that useful for long range hurricane forecasts, and why the National Hurricane Center only does outlooks out five days.  These models just aren’t designed for it, and this far away, the uncertainty is so great you can get exhausted tracking every little vortex that, over the life of the model, will spin up, but don’t even exist in the “real” world (not to mention the systems that spin up in the real world).  So anybody talking about storms forming a week away is probably just phishing for clickbait.  Now, talking about those who talk about them, that’s a public service and perfectly ok …

NOAA’s Atlantic Hurricane Season Update

Last week the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released an updated seasonal forecast, and due to the waning El Nino has increased their forecast for the number of storms expected this year, now saying there is an increased chance for an “above average” season.  What does that mean to you, the huddled masses cowering in fear along the shoreline, waiting for your inevitable doom?

Exactly nothing (assuming you have a hurricane plan already, which you should no matter what the seasonal forecast says).

First, even if you knew *exactly* how many storms were going to form in a year, it tells you nothing about how bad the season will be.  There have been above average years in raw numbers with no hurricane landfalls.  1992 was a below average year – well, except for Hurricane Andrew.  So unless you know where they are going to go, even one hurricane can ruin your day, and 20 can be no big deal if they are all fish storms.

Second, the numbers used to compute the averages are becoming more and more suspect.  This year’s “hurricane” Barry more than likely would not have been classified as a hurricane in past years for a number of reasons (before anyone yelps, no, this isn’t part of the Vast Global Warming Conspiracy(tm), it’s because of better observation systems that can see small patches of possible hurricane force winds, and different classification criteria).

I really don’t like the hype around seasonal forecasts and their updates.  Dr. Mark Johnson of UCF and I used to do them (including something NOAA doesn’t do, landfall probabilities), but the media circus and subsequent fear mongering were just a bit too much.  We still generate them, and they have decent enough skill, but they aren’t really “actionable” except for narrow applications.  About the only thing they are good from a public safety standpoint is “awareness,” but there are other ways of doing that than shoveling out the statistical stables …

So if you haven’t put together a plan yet, slap yourself and go to visit the FEMA web site and get some checklists to think about, consult your local EMA for risk maps for your risk of flooding (which is by far the major threat to life; the golden rule is shelter from wind, evacuate from water), and put together a plan.  Then don’t worry about it.

Even larger quake in California 6 July 2019

A bit north of the July 4th quake, but much stronger, at 7.1.  Just how much stronger?  It released 11.2 times the energy of the 6.4 magnitude quake on July 4th.  You will see terms like “bigger” in the media, but that is a bit misleading.  The key variable is how much energy is released.  The “bigger” term is just a measure of the size (amplitude) of the seismic waves on the seismograph, which uses a logarithmic scale.  But it’s energy that causes damage. USGS has a nice explanation here.

Fortunately, both of these quakes happened in a lightly populated area of the state, near the China Lake Naval Weapons Station and the Ridgecrest/Indian Wells area.  Still, the economic impacts of this series are likely to be well over $1 Billion dollars, with the current estimate (8am ET Saturday Morning) ranging from $1.5 to $3.8 Billion and a current “best estimate” (based purely on the computer models, which do anticipate additional aftershocks) of around $2.6 Billion. This quake probably only added a few hundred million to the estimated impacts.  Note these numbers are total economic impact, which includes things like business disruption (like Disneyland having to shut down rides), road repairs, as well as the more typical physical damage like buildings and post-earthquake fires and damage to government facilities like China Lake.  Insured losses (which is the only thing insurance companies care about) are likely to be light, especially given the trend towards very high deductibles for earthquake insurance.  That means the consumer (you) get stuck with the bill … so be careful when people say things like “damage is light” because chances are it’s based on models or estimates used by insurance companies, and they don’t include it if it doesn’t exceed the deductible or isn’t insured by them (like roads or government buildings).  And of course there are real people living there .. even if not huge numbers like LA or Las Vegas … and they matter!

Some thoughts on Climate Change

A lot of people have generated a lot of words about the topic of climate change. An awful lot of them really probably shouldn’t because they don’t really know what they are talking about, and all they are doing is spreading misinformation (even if well intentioned) and/or further inflaming an already politically charged debate. Unfortunately, even some people who do know what they are talking about sometimes go beyond their areas of competence and, more importantly, convolve science, policy, and politics.  This is a long post, sorry about that, but complex subjects require thoughtful discussions, and short posts can’t cover the topic. Even this is abbreviated to the point of oversimplification. It is a sad commentary on our society that nuanced discussions are virtually impossible in social media, yet that is increasingly how views are expressed.  Even 24 hour “news” outlets tend to focus on short, sound-byte driven coverage.  But enough whining.

So why am I writing this, and why should you care what I think? A bit of background first … I’ve been involved in climate change research and policy since the mid 1990’s.  I participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change RA4, and was invited by both Republican (Bush 43) and Democrat (Obama) administrations to be on the US committee.  I declined both of those invitations, because I was uncomfortable with the political nature and overtones of that process, and preferred to remain in the international realm and not be overly associated with a single government’s viewpoints or policies.  That is not to criticize those who are on the US committee, but I must say was not alone in being uncomfortable with how the US conducts its process, and some pretty prominent scientists have quietly declined to participate in it.  This leads me to my first point.  The IPCC and individual government processes to study climate change were in theory a good idea, but got off track as they have moved further away from science into policy.  There are essentially three aspects to the climate change issues (or any technical issue for that matter):

  1. What are the facts?  In this case, is the climate doing, why is it doing it, and what is it likely to do in the future?
  2. What are the implications and impacts?  In other words, what are the potential impacts of any climate changes?
  3. Given the impacts, what (if anything) do we need to do about it, based on the causes?

(1) and (2) are essentially only science.  What you believe, your politics, your religion, have nothing to do with it.  It’s not simple, but it’s just data and the laws of physics and probability.  The third, on the other hand, is mostly politics.  Sure, science, engineering, and economics will tell you if the policies you want to propose are rational, or will do anything about causes and effects, but ultimately it is a policy question, and that’s a political question that (hopefully) is informed by the science.

In my not so humble opinion, one key problem is the current system tries to do all three in a single process. And that’s a Bad Thing.  Because climate is such a complex and technical issue, and because some scientists have not kept these three things separate, politicians and those who think in political terms have attacked the science because they no longer see it as science, but just another political tactic associated with an agenda. Lets be clear here: I could design a response to the worst projections regarding climate change that would make the ghost of Adam Smith write a new chapter in Wealth of Nations singing its praises, or Zombie Lenin to burst out of the mausoleum and cry Отлично! in the heart of Red Square.  Another key problem is that because the “left” (in quotes, there are no real leftist or liberal movements in the US, but that’s another discussion) has fully taken up the cause because if fits with their worldview, and allows many of their agenda points to be pressed under the rubric of “doing something” even if those things wouldn’t really do much about the underlying problem.  Likewise, much of the opposition on the “right” (and again, in the US, there are no politically conservative movements in the US) is based more on a reaction to the policy proposals of the “left”, and the false concept that anthropogenic climate change is a fake issue to promote those policies.

But I get ahead of myself.  Let’s take the three aspects above in sequence.  First, what are the facts?  While the technical details are complex, it’s really fairly simple.  Humans have in an extremely short time (geologically speaking) radically altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, as well as the surface of the Earth.  These changes must, by the very nature of the Earth’s climate system, result in changes from historical weather and climate patterns because the system is interactive.  That’s the theory, and the theory is backed up by observations at the local level, going back to studies at the turn of the *last* century (late 1800’s) that rain patterns east of Paris began to depend on the day of the week, due to the dust churned up by the city. This is backed up by modern studies (PDF).  At the planetary level, changes are harder to detect, but are also becoming increasingly evident.  So while the details are complex, don’t be drawn in debates over minutia.  While there are scientists that have legitimate, credible concerns about various technical issues like cloud depiction in models, or sensor changes over time (I’m among those who feel tropical cyclone intensity changes are not within the ability of the quality of our historical data to detect), these concerns do not compromise the overarching conclusion:  human activities are causing ahistorical, “unnatural” changes both weather and climate, and those changes are increasing.  It is wrong of activists on the “left” to trash scientists with concerns (I’ve actually been called a “Climate Denier” because I expressed concerns over the hurricane data – and I’m a long time advocate of “doing something that works” on this issue!), just as it is wrong for those on the “right” to attack scientists from the other perspective.  Have no doubt: the science is never perfect, but it is solid, and actionable.

So, what about those impacts (aspect number 2).  That is a bit fuzzier, but again the data says there is a problem, and it is getting worse.   We are already seeing significant changes in agriculture, animal migration patterns, disease outbreaks, and a myriad of other indicators.  Note these reinforce point one, and show that this isn’t just a small group of climate specialists – multiple fields are seeing impacts.  So the second aspect is also clear: while exact nature of these impacts is somewhat fuzzy, the best science indicates that there are and will be increasingly negative impacts for both humans and the natural world.

OK, what to we do (aspect 3).  As noted above here is where things have broken down, largely because the politics (which should have been confined to policy decisions) has infected the science.  Much of the climate debate is focused on the IPCC and their periodic reports.  The problem is that this is a fundamentally political process.  The IPCC does not do original research.  It simply periodically compiles and synthesizes the latest research into a comprehensive report.  The problem is that process ultimately goes through review by the political levels of the participant governments.  Then it ends up in what is called a COP, or more formally, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The 24th such meeting is in progress in Katowice, Poland as I write this.  The current meetings (Sunday, 9 December 2018) have broken down over whether the phrase “welcome” or “takes note” will be used to receive the latest IPCC report. Yeah, seriously, that’s the hang up, although of course that’s just the excuse being used by some parties to sabotage the process.  Rather that let the process work by receiving a technical report (albeit one already tinged by politics), some national governments are using the process to avoid discussing the implications of the report on bogus grounds.  It’s insanity, but it’s the way things work.  But, to be honest, the IPCC/COP process has never worked.  The various agreements as agreed never had any chance of actually doing anything about climate change anyway.  Too many secondary issues involving wealth transfer from first to third world, economics, and so forth became convolved in trying to fix the problem at hand.

How do we fix this broken process?  As “long” as this post is, that would take a lot longer to even begin to discuss.  The first thing is to get the national governments out of the review process for the IPCC technical reports, and disconnect the policy creation process from the technical assessment process at both the national and intergovernmental levels.  People on the “right” need to realize that while the “left” may have been the first to jump on the bandwagon, and push their “solutions” (that, naturally, also address their worldview), there are a lot of options to address the problem, some of which would actually work, and give the average “progressive leftist” a serious case of hives.  Things like nuclear power, or free market approaches to energy production/distribution (the current system isn’t anything approaching a free market).  Another significant problem, especially here in the US, is the fact that some have confused religion into this.  I don’t separate in this discussion politics and religion, mostly because here in the US the two are somewhat inseparable since everything in this benighted land becomes about the two party political system.  But an unfortunate (and incorrect) view has developed particularly in the US that science in general and environmental and biological science in particular are “anti-Christian” in some way.  Again, long discussion involving theology as much as science.  But this also highlights another complex aspect of the problem.  People on the “left” or “right”, or “Christian” vs “Atheist” really don’t understand each other, and don’t communicate.  And it seems like they are more eager to score points and demonize the other than acknowledge the complexity of the discussion, take the time to understand why people hold the views they do, and reach some conclusion based on neutral facts that can be mutually agreed on.

The bottom line is that the climate issue highlights many of the flaws that are inherent in the present system of human governance and decision making at the national and nation-state level.  In the US, it highlights the dysfunctional nature of the media, educational system, and political party systems in particular.   I’m a scientist, not a politician, and I don’t have any good ideas on how to fix the process so that we can address issues like Climate Change in a way that has any hope of working.  But I know for sure we are headed for some really bad times ahead if we don’t.  It’s a pretty planet, with amazing places and wonderful people.  Let’s figure out a way to not screw it up …

Atlantic low: the saga of invest areas

Here we have yet another example as to why you shouldn’t get excited much about invest areas.  At one point yesterday NHC gave the system a 90% chance of becoming a named storm in the next 5 days.  This morning?  Only 40%.  Here is the forecast model map as of 6am Tuesday:

And if you haven’t learned by now reading this blog, it’s also why you have to be careful with track models and not cherry-pick the scariest line.  Notice the lack of nice colored tracks?  That’s because the major models don’t spin it up and can’t track it very far.  Many of those gray curved longer lines are alternative scenarios where an artificial vortex was inserted into the model.  So the most likely scenario for this thing is that it will spread rain across the northern Islands, Puerto Rico, and Haiti, but not become an organized system.