28 April 2011

Weather is Not Climate Unless People Die

UPDATE: At Dot Earth,Andy Revkin has collected a great set of expert perspectives on this event.

UPDATE #2: Subsequent to this post Gleick has added a new parenthetical to his post, that says the opposite of his first paragraph: "More extreme and violent climate is a direct consequence of human-caused climate change (whether or not we can determine if these particular tornado outbreaks were caused or worsened by climate change)." 

Peter Gleick is only the most recent climate scientist to try to exploit extreme weather for political gain, writing at The Huffington Post:
Violent tornadoes throughout the southeastern U.S. must be a front-page reminder that no matter how successful climate deniers are in confusing the public or delaying action on climate change in Congress or globally, the science is clear: Our climate is worsening. . .

In the climate community, we call this "loading the dice." Rolling loaded dice weighted toward more extreme and energetic weather means more death and destruction.
You can see in the graph above that there is no upwards trend in US tornado deaths, 1940-2010 (PDF).  This year's very active season and tragic loss of life won't alter that conclusion.  Actually there is a sharp downwards trend during a period when US population grew a great deal (consider this graph from Harold Brooks for a longer term perspective UPDATE: See below for this graph through 2010).  There is obviously no evidence of "more death and destruction."  On the lack of trends in destruction see this paper.

On the significance of yesterday's tragic tornado outbreak, consider this perspective from NOAA:
What's the risk of another super-outbreak like April 3-4, 1974? It's rare; but we don't know how rare, because an outbreak like that has only happened once since tornado records have been kept. There is no way to know if the odds are one in every 50 years, 10 years or 1,000 years, since we just do not have the long climatology of reasonably accurate tornado numbers to use. So the bigger the outbreaks, the less we can reliably judge their potential to recur.
Gleick's column is all the more ironic for this statement:
Climate deniers who have stymied action in Congress and confused the public -- like the tobacco industry did before them -- need to be held accountable for their systematic misrepresentation of the science, their misuse and falsification of data, and their trickery.
Obviously, it is not just climate deniers who are engaged in misrepresentation and trickery. Here is what Gleick wrote just a few months ago:
While the public may not fully understand the difference between climate and weather, or understand how the world could be warming while it's cold outside, most well-known climate deniers fully understand these distinctions -- they just choose to ignore them in order to make false arguments to and score points with the public and gullible policymakers. Cherry-picking selected data that supports a particular point (i.e., it's cold today), while hiding or ignoring more data that points in exactly the opposite direction (i.e., global average temperatures are rising), is bad science and it leads to bad policy. Just last week Glenn Beck pointed to a snowstorm in Minneapolis as proof that global warming isn't happening. He knows better, but his audience may not.
Well said Peter.

UPDATE: Here is a graph of US tornado deaths 1875-2010, data courtesy of Harold Brooks, NOAA (Thanks Harold!):

13 comments:

  1. Lets be honest. Most people really don't care what may happen in 50 or 100 years. This is why climate scientist try to assert that some severe event is attributable to AGW. This makes them susceptible to attack. Also since AGW is dependent on computer modeling not observation its always going to to be in a weak position. Climate scientists should move on and give up politics. Posting on Huffington brands you by the way. From everything I've read the credible threat is sea level rise. When this is evident society will act.

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  2. Roger,

    This indeed appears to be a once in 50 year event. http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2011/04/question-of-day.html

    April 3-4, 1974 occurred with significantly cooler worldwide temperatures than today. Temperatures were even cooler during the 1884 "Enigma" outbreak which occurred in the South and killed as many as 1,200. What happened yesterday was "weather," not climate.

    If I may, if readers would like to better understand how the storm warning system works and saves lives, I'd like to modestly recommend my book, "Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather."

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  3. Boy does he rely on a lot of public funding bodies.

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  4. Strong La Niña plus a PDO in negative phase. Our local meteorologist, Bill Steffen of WOOD-TV, was worried about a replay of 1974 months ago. BTW, apparently on June 12th we will have gone 1000 days without a hurricane landfall on the U.S. That is some amazingly good luck that I would bet is about to end.

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  5. "[The other guys]need to be held accountable for their systematic misrepresentation of the science, their misuse and falsification of data, and their trickery."

    Be very, very careful of what you wish for.

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  6. Roger,

    Are there any other ways in which tornado trends are followed other than death? I clicked through a few of your links and some attempts were made to consider total destruction (after subtracting for increased wealth, inflation, etc.)

    But have any attempts been made to account for frequency/severity? I understand the effect of increased technology allowing for better documentation, but perhaps there are ways to tease out a long term trend?

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  7. -4-libertrad

    I just added an update at the top to a great post by Andy Revkin that reports comments from many of the nation's top tornado experts. Have a look.

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  8. In fact, the graph above is cause for celebration. Doppler radar, NWS tornado warnings and tornado sirens have likely saved thousands of lives 1980 - 2010.

    The small Nebraska town in which I live was destroyed by an F4 a few years ago. Thanks to a tornado warning, the population managed to get to the only brick building in town -- the bank -- to shelter. One old lady, who was nearly immobile, was the only person to lose her life.

    What went wrong in Alabama, I wonder? Even an F4 is survivable, as long as you have time to get to adequate shelter.

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  9. Do you know what Glenn Beck actually said? The link just points to a Google search that does not lend itself to finding any actual quote.

    Not living in the US, I know next to nothing about Glenn Beck, but quite possibly I would dislike him if I did. But I want facts before passing judgment, and this kind of dubious "reference" makes me suspicious.

    My impression is that the statement that "most well-known climate deniers fully understand these distinctions -- they just choose to ignore them in order to make false arguments to and score points with the public and gullible policymakers" is completely untrue. I am assuming that "deniers" include people like Anthony Watts, who keeps repeating that climate is not weather every single time something like this comes up.

    Facts, fairness. Please.

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  10. Let me fix that headline for you

    Weather is Not Climate Unless it is Politically Expedient

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  11. Relevant to this are two posts in William Hooke's "Living on the Real World" blog:

    http://www.livingontherealworld.org/?p=257 discusses the odds of a house, a major city, an airport being hit by a tornado and the rate of increase in that risk due to changing land use and population density.

    http://www.livingontherealworld.org/?p=262 discusses the aging technology infrastructure (satellites and radars) at National Weather Service and the danger that in five years we'll have big holes in our warning system because of budget cuts: a different sort of "tornado politics" than Roger discussed in THB. ;-)

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  12. -11-Jonathan Gilligan

    Wonderful, many thanks. Bill has given me permission to republish his great post.

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  13. My email to Gleick:

    You wrote: "Cherry-picking selected data that supports a particular point (i.e., it's cold today), while hiding or ignoring more data that points in exactly the opposite direction (i.e., global average temperatures are rising), is bad science and it leads to bad policy."

    Even worse science is to lie about the trend in global average temperatures. They haven't risen in well over a decade now, and if you paid any attention at all to the evidence, you would know that they almost certainly are not going to rise. 20th century warming coincided with a grand maximum in solar activity that lasted 80 years. Now that the sun has entered a quiescent phase, history says that we are in for cooling, not warming.

    Answer please.

    Alec Rawls
    Palo Alto

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