Trust me on this. Don’t email your local meteorologist and say something like “What do you think of global warming now with all these blizzards?” You will come across rather silly if not down right ignorant.
Let’s think about it for a minute. Consider a few things before we jump to the keyboard. My grandmother always said you can’t say something silly if you keep your mouth shut. Something I have learned the hard way far too many times.
Yes, it has been the snowiest winter on record in Washington DC. Pretty bad in Boston and the Big Apple too. Those cities are less than 600 km apart. The planet is about 40,000 km around at the equator. The weather in the Northeast USA is not usually representative of the planet as a whole. Climate change IS affecting the entire planet though.
The Winter Olympics start Friday in Vancouver. They have been trucking in snow, because it has been so unusually warm! That’s no surprise either, because when Mother Nature brings the cold down to one part of the planet, she almost always compensates somewhere else.
You might wonder just what the planets temperature is right now??
The answer is unusually warm.
We just finished one of the warmest years on the instrumental record. The satellite measurements of the lower troposphere (The bottom part of the atmosphere where weather occurs) are actually indicating the warmest temps ever recorded using this method. The January surface data from NASA/NCDC is days away and I will lay odds it is near all time levels for January.
Another fact to consider is that weather and climate are two different things. If the temp. continues to warm another 4C by the year 2100, we will still have all time record lows and we will still have blizzards. The blizzards may not be as frequent, but they may very well have a lot more snow.
The reason is simple thermodynamics. Warmer air can “hold” more water vapor. The IPCC has estimated that the atmosphere has 4% more water vapor in it now than 40 years ago because of the warming we have already experienced. Even in a warmer world we will still see all time record lows. The all time record highs will far outnumber them though.
Doctor Jeff Masters is a Meteorologist who writes an excellent blog on the Weather Undergound site. He has a very good explanation of this on his latest post. Click the image and read it. I bet you will think twice before typing that email to your local weather geek afterwards.
I’ve been keeping a big secret.
Way back in August I had a call from a friend who works at the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) in Washington, DC. She asked if I’d heard that the National Science Foundation was opening up applications for science reporters to visit Antarctica.
In case you have never looked into the logistics of going to the South Pole, let me educate you!
Oh, have I!
It’s NOT serviced by your local airline. It’s not serviced by ANY commercial airline.
Basically, unless you are a scientist working on an NSF funded project at the pole, or a very rich or well funded explorer, (That leaves me out) you are not going to get there. It’s very expensive to do anything there and very dangerous. I keep getting told that “Antarctica is a beautiful place where it’s very easy to die”.
Getting there is not easy and it’s not without danger. A mild summer day at the South Pole is -30C. A cold summer day is 50 degrees below zero on the old Fahrenheit scale.
The South Pole is on top of two miles of ice at the bottom of the world. Elevation is over 3,000 meters. The air is very thin and very cold. The weather can change in seconds.
So with all of this in mind and the fact that it’s been my life long dream to visit Antarctica, the call from Ann Posegate at NEEF got my attention real quick. She suggested a joint application from us both. Me at WHNT -TV and she at NEEF. We went for it!
With an incredibly short deadline, we put together an application asking to see the sites where all this incredible science is being done and the people doing it. We told the NSF that we would share it with the world if they let us go.
Today we got the official word.
They said YES!
In case you did not know…The most important science on the planet is being conducted in Antarctica.
The importance of the climate science speaks for itself. What you may not know about are the incredible discoveries of life being made. Life that’s surviving in environments that were thought impossible for sustaining life. Guess who is really interested in that??
NASA will soon be sending new probes to other planets and asteroids looking for life. The science in the Antarctic freezer is giving them new clues on what to look for out there.
Think about that. It’s one of the fundamental questions of science. It’s one of the fundamental questions of humanity!
Are we alone in the cosmos?
We were selected from a field of many applicants, and I’m the first Meteorologist working for a local TV station to ever make it. Two years ago I visited the High Arctic (on my own dime and it wasn’t cheap). They say it gets in your blood. I think it does.
So in early January, I will fly from Christchurch New Zealand and land at the bottom of the world. Best of all, I am going to take you along with pictures and video and any other way I can think of. (Yes, they have internet down there.)
Most of all I want young people to realize that science is not sitting in a room reading a book! It’s about discovery. Dale Andersen knows that. I’ve been trading some email with him from the Dry Valley in Antarctica. He is one of the people I want to tell you about.
I cannot wait to get back to the great white quiet. The polar regions are special places. They are unlike anywhere else on Earth, and this time I am going to stand at the very bottom of the world.
Oh, and yes my wife does indeed think I am crazy.
When I was a young, dumb undergraduate in Meteorology in the fall of 1977 at the University of Oklahoma, one of the first things I absorbed with great surprise was the inherent dislike of TV weathercasters among many meteorologists and meteorology students.
It did not matter whether the TV person had a background in meteorology. (Back then many did not, it’s a bit better now) They still grumbled about how the science was dumbed down and too entertaining. I quickly joined the fray, never planning on doing that kind of work. I was going to forecast for airlines and fly free all over the world.
Airline deregulation put an end to that and the chance internship — offered by the man who would become my mentor — led me into TV after all.
So, I ended up doing something that 98% of meteorologists don’t do: standing in front of thousands and giving the forecast.Yes, I’m now one of those people that the researchers and students made fun of!
In the beginning, I was determined to be different. I’d give good science and to heck with the TV stuff. Just the facts.
It’s been an eye opening 30 years in front of cameras with red lights on them.
First of all, I have never given up on giving good science. I have learned to do it smarter.
I have also learned that the audience doesn’t really want to know why you are forecasting what you’re forecasting! What they DO want to know is what the weather is going to do to them tomorrow. Not their neighbor, but them! They also want to know what the weekend is going to be like. They don’t care of it’s too far out to forecast; they want your best guess.
The National Hurricane Center folks have come to this same realisation. They have resisted mightily giving tropical storm forecasts beyond three days, but the NAVY wants 5, and really, 7.
Facts be damned! Just give us your best guess!
Now, in TV, if you do a great weathercast full of science and no one watches… it’s not worth much. It’s not worth much to advertisers, either, and you will soon be out of a job! All the good science in the world is wasted if no one is watching, anyhow!
Many of my friends who work in meteorology away from TV understand this in part, but many do not. I have struggled with it myself for years.
I consider it a must read for anyone who works in any science field. Whether or not you are on TV. Especially if you are not.
Randy Olson was a PhD. A marine biologist who went Hollywood.
I mean literally.
He chucked his career as a “soon to be” tenured professor in New England and enrolled in acting and film making classes at USC!
After a shaky start he has made quite a success of himself.
He has taught me why researchers hate TV weather guys so much. It’s the same reason that news weasels think we are all nerds back in the weather department. (OK, we are… )
I once summed up my job as, “Taking the simple and making it complex!” That’s how the newsies see it. They have a real point.
The trained scientists who go into research are used to a life where communication doesn’t matter. It is precision and facts that count. Accuracy is number one and readability, brevity, and story telling are not only not wanted or needed, they are positively looked down upon!
Olson makes a great argument that the reason that scientists are so frustrated by the public’s inability to grasp the basic facts of climate change or evolution is that the scientists are unable to communicate it. They think that if you dump out all the facts the public will take the time to read it.
Some will, but most do not have the time in their busy lives. To get a message through to people you have to present it in a way that is entertaining, engaging, and not delivered from an ivory tower.
Olson is right that the person appealing to the heart will win everytime over the guy with just the facts. Even if the facts are all correct.
The purveyors of pseudo science that tell you climate scientists are divided, or that climate change is a big liberal conspiracy, are appealing to the heart or the wallet. The scientists are giving the facts. Guess who is winning.
The scientists are, but just barely. They’re leaving a good chunk of people behind. Randy Olson has taught me that people decide things on the heart instead of the brain. I knew this before, but it never occurred to me. Does that make sense??
Don’t go feeling smug. We all do it. Even the very scientists who complain that the public just “doesn’t get it”.
The public is trying to keep their head above water and their kids in school. They do not have the time to read all those dry facts. We have to give them the information in a way that is more interesting than CSI, and more importantly, doesn’t waste their time.
It’s not that the public “doesn’t get” or “doesn’t care” about science. They do. They just aren’t going to give you their time unless you can convince them it’s worthwhile and important.
The cardinal sin for me when I do the weather is to waste someones time. They give it grudgingly. I hear weathercasters complain about getting only 3 minutes on a bad weather day. If people are giving me 3 minutes of their precious time, I will make darn sure I don’t waste it.
Sir Winston Churchill understood communication.
Without doubt the best science communicator of the last century was Carl Sagan. (See my last two posts!) Dr. Olson agrees with me on this point, as you will see if you read the book.
Churchill understood. Sagan understood.
Thanks to Randy Olson’s book, I think I do, too!
This is a book that everyone who works in science or in communicating science should read. Everyone else should read it to understand why those of us with a background in Science, have such a terrible time at it!
I promise in the future to quit being such a scientist! I knew better, really.
Thank you Dr. Olson. I hope those nightmares about your acting teacher get better soon.
A SHORT HISTORY FIRST
Weather radar is now a common site on any TV weathercast, and radar images are all over the Internet.
It wasn’t really meant to be that way though….
Apparently, the first weather radar image of a dangerous storm shown on TV live was back in 1961. A Houston TV station sent a young reporter to Galveston to cover the approach of Hurricane Carla. It was a mean category 4 storm and heading right toward the city. The reporter showed up at the local weather bureau office and saw an image of the hurricane on the newly installed radar.The Galveston WSR 57 radar had been installed just the year before.
It was a scary picture and he wanted to show it on air. This was unheard of at the time. It had never been done before!
This request required permission from the Weather Bureau headquarters in Washington. It was supposedly given very reluctantly, but it had the desired effect. Most people got out of town before Carla stormed ashore. That young TV news guy from Houston was named Dan Rather by the way. Betcha didn’t know that!
It was not much of a radar by today’s standards. It had no Doppler capability, and was built on World War 2 technology. They were the main weather radar used by the National Weather Service (Successor to the Weather Bureau), until the last one was decommissioned in 1996.
The replacements are called WSR 88D. This stands for Weather Service Radar 1988 Doppler. It was, however, not up and running in most places until the mid 1990’s.
Doppler Radar has the ability to detect rain drops (and anything else in the beam) moving toward or away from the radar. This is based on the Doppler effect. It’s the same affect that you hear when a train passes by and the tone or frequency of the horn changes. This effect happens with ALL electromagnetic radiation as well. This includes light and radio waves (Which are basically the same thing!).
Astronomers use it to determine how fast stars that are millions of light years away are moving away from us. It’s called the red shift, because the light from objects moving away is shifted toward the red light end of the spectrum.
Tornadoes are spotted on Doppler radar when rain drops are rotated around an intense low pressure in a thunderstorm. This intense low is called a meso (small scale) cyclone. These mesocyclones are the parent circulation of a tornado. Only a few mesocyclone produce tornadoes, and for this reason, false alarm rates on tornado warnings remain unacceptably high. Keep in mind the radar can only detect the motion of objects moving toward or away from it. Not side to side.
This same technology is very possibly responsible for your last speeding ticket!
THINGS YOU SHOULD REMEMBER
Radars do not see rain!
They just detect radiation that is reflected back as the narrow beam travels outward. Bugs, dust, hail stones, birds and even clouds reflect the beam as well! Weather radars operate mainly at a wave length between 3 and 10cm. This minimises reflections from objects that are much bigger, or smaller than rain drops. A chunk of ice with a coating of water is a very good reflector at these wavelengths, and many times what you may think is heavy rain is actually hail.
Rain intensity is measured in dbz which is based on the power returned to the radar. 20 dbz is a very light rain. 40 dbz is very heavy. 50 dbz is blinding rain or may be hail. Most online or on TV radars use red and yellow for the higher values. These values are vaild only if the returns on the radar are from rain drops!
Radar Beams Don’t Travel long The Ground!
The radar beam travels in a basically straight line away from the radar. It is usually pointed at 0.5 to 2 degrees above the horizon. Since the Earth is curved, a radar beam is usually nearly 25 km high when it hits an object 500 km away! This is above all but the most violent thunderstorms. Tornadoes are low level phenomenon. A radar is unlikely to detect a circulation around one more than 150 km away. Even 100 km is really stretching it.
Radar Beams Sometimes Hit The Ground!
On clear, calm nights, a strong temperature inversion may develop. This means the air warms with height. These inversions cause a density difference in the atmosphere that bends the beam to the ground. The radar may look like it is detecting strong storms. It’s just dirt!
Meteorologists call this Anomalous Propagation. Our top news anchor at the station keeps telling me that he had a case of that once, but the doctor gave him a cream that cleared it right up!
The Newest Technology
The TV station I work for was the first in the world to install a Dual Polarimetric Radar. The NWS is upgrading most of their Doppler radars to this technology as well. The reason: The ability to determine the shape of objects in the beam.
This has fabulous possibilities. We have even detected debris from a large tornado on our radar. We call it ARMOR for Advanced Radar for Meteorological Operations and Research. The University of Alabama at Huntsville and WHNT developed ARMOR jointly. I use it for forecasting and on air, and they are doing some incredible research science with it.
ONE LAST THING
A line of storms or an area of rain will change as it moves along. Do not assume that a storm 100 km away will be as strong, or even still exist when it reaches you. Remember also that the further away it is, the higher in the storm you are looking. The rainfall pattern may look much different near the ground. Radar is a remote sensing tool. It does great things, but it’s only detecting radio waves. No more, and no less!
First of all, I write this from my hometown of Tulsa Oklahoma. I’m home because of a sudden illness in my family, and though I have not lived in Oklahoma in 25 years, it will always be home in my mind. That said, the national joke about Oklahoma used to be, and by all rights should still be, the roads.
As my great uncle once put it after driving from California – “For 2000 miles, I drive on great roads and they do not charge me a dime. I reach the Oklahoma border, and the roads fall to pieces, and they charge me a dollar a mile for the privilege of dodging the potholes.
That was in 1970. It hasn’t changed. Just to drive from my hotel to visit my family 11 miles away requires getting on the “CREEK NATION TURNPIKE”. One exit is all I need travel. The charge is 75 cents. I pay though, because I really do not want to buy a set of struts and get a front end alignment.
Oklahoma is also known for football. Having attended the University of Oklahoma for 4 years and even going to one football game, I must admit that we have the best football team money can buy ;).
This in itself seems to be a recurring problem with some organization called NCAA. You might have figured out that I really don’t follow football much. I do though. LIVERPOOL FC rules.
What I don’t understand is why the biggest fans of the Oklahoma Sooners football team have never set foot in a lecture hall there? Then again, I root for Liverpool and have never lived there! Not that I may not someday!
OK, so I’m weird. If you have read these posts for a while, you likely already know this.
Fortunately, I am nowhere near the top of the heap when it comes to weird Okies! Actually, I may be. Oklahomans are a fairly practical and down home group of people.
Rarely do I write about politics here, especially when it comes to climate change. I try and stick with the science. The reality of climate change is a scientific issue. The effects of it are as well. What we DO about it is a political issue, and I know nothing more, and likely less than most, on the best way to attack the problem.
When a United States Senator from my home state thinks that virtually all of the world’s scientists are perpetrating a hoax, and that it’s all a GIANT conspiracy, then it’s time to say something.
For my fellow Okies, who are also embarrassed, I feel your pain.
A list of some of the statements of Mr. Inhofe would be apropos here, but let’s just say that the words of Dr. Mark Serreze of NOAA’s Snow Ice Data Center really do put it best.
While he was talking about these extreme conspiracy nuts in general, it certainly applies.
Political comedian Bill Maher recently mentioned Oklahoma Senator Inhofe, and summed the situation up in a rather amusing way. Start watching at about 2 minutes into the video. This is probably what most climate scientists think about Senator Laughing Stock. Just don’t think that the rest of the state is that way!
It wouldn’t be fair to label everyone in Senator Inhofe’s political party with his views either.