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“Weather Gone Wild”: Weather Channel soft porn? No, thoughtful National Geographic article …

August 15th, 2012 · 2 Comments

Have to say that “Weather Gone Wild” sounds all too close to tasteless (and discomfitting) late-night advertising during repeats of old B movies on obscure cable channels (happily not seen for a long time).  This could easily be the title for much of The Weather Channel’s programming.  In fact, this is the cover story and focus of National Geographic’s September 2012 issue.

The introductory question:

Disastrous rains. No rain at all. Unexpected heat or cold. Is Earth’s climate changing dangerously?

The editor’s note, Coming Storms, opens with a discussion of ominous weather in Kansas. He ends

[the story's] author … knows this subject well. In the spring of 1986 he and I spent nearly three months chasing thunderstorms with a team from the National Severe Storms Laboratory for a story on tornadoes that ran in the June 1987 issue. Much has changed since then. Our planet has warmed up, there is more moisture in the atmosphere, heavy rains are more frequent, and droughts are more pronounced. Peter examines the causes and considers the future, which some say looks as ominous as a Kansas supercell in May.

“Looks as ominous” as a Biblical event?

“Weather gone wild” begins:

Rains that are almost biblical, heat waves that don’t end, tornadoes that strike in savage swarms—there’s been a change in the weather lately. What’s going on?

The story opens with a look at the devastating — and unprecedented — spring 2010 Nashville, TN, floods.  The author then highlights that “extreme” is increasingly frequent not just on ESPN X-Game emissions.  And, then, the trillion dollar questions:

What’s going on? Are these extreme events signals of a dangerous, human-made shift in Earth’s climate? Or are we just going through a natural stretch of bad luck?

The short answer is: probably both.

Two paragraphs follow on ‘natural’ causes and improving scientific understanding of El Niño and La Niña events.

And then … paragraph after paragraph about how a warming planet is driving increased risks of extreme events. From those paragraphs.

  • New evidence suggests that warming is altering the polar jet stream, adding lazy north-south meanders to its path around the planet—which might help to explain why North America was so warm last winter and Europe so cold. ”
  • In the case of some weather extremes, though, the connection is pretty clear. The warmer the atmosphere, the more potential for record-breaking heat waves. ”
  • “As moisture in the atmosphere has increased, rainfall has intensified. The amount of rain falling in intense downpours—the heaviest one percent of rain events—has increased by nearly 20 percent during the past century in the U.S.”

Amid this highly readable (and highly recommended) story, multiple scientists speaking with language that would make Joe Romm happy.

For example, an excellent linkage of weather to steroid use (as per here).

“You’re getting more rain from a given storm now than you would have 30 or 40 years ago,” says Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Global warming, he says, has changed the odds for extreme weather.

“Picture a baseball player on steroids,” Meehl goes on. “This baseball player steps up to the plate and hits a home run. It’s impossible to say if he hit that home run because of the steroids, or whether he would have hit it anyway. The drugs just made it more likely.”

It’s the same with the weather, Meehl says. Greenhouse gases are the steroids of the climate system. “By adding just a little bit more carbon dioxide to the climate, it makes things a little bit warmer and shifts the odds toward these more extreme events,” he says. “What was once a rare event will become less rare.”

When it comes to that drought or flood or Derecho or heat wave …, human-driven climate change “drugs just made it more likely” that “a rare event will become less rare.”

And, the author runs with the analogy. While Nashville opens the story, Texas comes into play just after Meehl’s comments. This begins:

Nobody has lived through more weather on steroids lately than Texans.

And 13 paragraphs follow on Texas’ drought, heat wave, and fires.

“But when there’s no water to evaporate, all that energy goes into heating the ground and consequently heating the air. Given how little rain we had, we probably would have had record warmth in Texas in 2011 even without climate change. But climate change added an additional degree or so of heat to it.”

That extra degree of heat was like an extra shot of gasoline on the state’s forests: By increasing evaporation, it made them even drier. In a drought, said [Texas state climatologist John] Nielsen-Gammon, “every little increase in severity makes a big difference.” Texas in 2011 experienced the worst wildfire season on record. Taken together, the fires blackened an area larger than Connecticut—nearly twice as much acreage as in the previous worst year.

Another excellent example of memorable scientific commentary comes in this paragraph near the end of the story:

Weather disasters are like heart attacks, says [scientist] Jay Gulledge. “When your doctor advises you about how to avoid a heart attack, he doesn’t say, Well, you need to exercise, but it’s OK to keep smoking,” he says. The smart approach to extreme weather is to attack all the risk factors, by designing crops that can survive drought, buildings that can resist floods and high winds, policies that discourage people from building in dangerous places—and of course, by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

For me (and millions of Americans), National Geographic is the iconic (and eloquent) communicator of truth about our planet. A question to consider:  Will this iconic truth-teller reach people who have — to date — resisted hearing the truth about climate change?

Again, I recommend reading Weather Gone Wild. Well written, informative, thoughtful — it is worth the time.  A hat tip to the author, Peter Miller, and a major hat tip to National Geographic for commissioning and publishing it.

Tags: Global Warming · climate change · environmental · journalism · science

2 responses so far ↓

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