Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project Provides Tool to Assess Extreme Weather - Part I

Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project Provides Tool to Assess Extreme Weather - Part I

February 15, 2011 21:07
by J. Wylie Donald

What if we had it all wrong?  What if the weather really wasn't getting more extreme, wasn't getting hotter (or colder, wetter, drier), wasn't changing?  Then  any efforts to rein in carbon dioxide emissions would be misguided and, worse, costly.  Is there any evidence that scientists are getting it all wrong?  The Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project is working on figuring that out.  An international team of climatologists enlisted millions of hours of supercomputing time and plugged in over a century of weather data.  The goal is to permit climate researchers to better address issues such as the range of natural variability of extreme events such as floods, droughts and hurricanes. To quote the study's lead author, Gil Compo of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "This reanalysis data will enable climate scientists to rigorously evaluate past climate variations compared to climate model simulations, which is critical for building confidence in model projections of regional changes and high-impact, extreme events."

For those of you who remember the moment in the sun (of the popular press) of chaos theory, there was something called the Lorenz Butterfly Effect, that affirmed that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could, through various weather processes, lead to tornadoes in Texas.  It may frustrate lawyers to learn that proximate cause does not hold in weather analyses.  Very small changes in initial conditions can result in very large differences in weather outcomes.  Hence the importance of the Reanalysis Project in assessing actual weather conditions and changes over time.

Small differences in words may also make a difference.  Query whether there is a difference between "extreme weather" and "extreme weather disasters".  Anne Jolis of the Wall Street Journal European Edition set off a small controversy this weekend when she or her editors dropped a word from a quote from one of her climate research sources when she provided the Journal's spin on "climate alarmists."  Ms. Jolis offers an antidote to climate change-induced extremes in weather:  "There is at least one climate lesson that we can draw from the recent weather: Whatever happens, prosperity and preparedness help."  That is, countries that are economically advanced are more likely to fare better in the face of Mother Nature's onslaughts.  She compares Australia's response to Cyclone Yasi (only one death) to that of Myanmar when Cyclone Nargil ultimately caused the deaths of 130,000 people.  Therefore, concludes Ms. Jolis, economic activity should be enhanced, not diminished as alarmists would do.

The butterfly effect here is the quote relied on by Ms. Jolis:  ""There's no data-driven answer yet to the question of how human activity has affected extreme weather," adds Roger Pielke Jr., another University of Colorado climate researcher."  What Dr. Pielke actually said, as set forth on his blog, "There's no data-driven answer yet to the question of how human activity has affected extreme weather disasters." 

So was the omission of "disaster" meaningful?  Dr. Pielke's peers apparently thought so and queried him, thus prompting the blog response.  We don't intend to resolve that question.  We do wish to point out, however, that such editing can call into question the validity of an entire article.  Ms. Jolis makes a fair point about economic growth being an important tool to address the problems of climate change.  But we think she loses some credibility when her sources assert they were misquoted.  As Dr. Pielke points out, ín the climate change debate "anything that can be misinterpreted usually will be."

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Effects | Weather

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