Update: Feb 14 2010: Dana Milbank of the Washington Post provides his perspective: (emphasis mine)
As a scientific proposition, claiming that heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic debunks global warming theory is about as valid as claiming that the existence of John Edwards debunks the theory of evolution. In fact, warming theory suggests that you’d see trends toward heavier snows, because warmer air carries more moisture. This latest snowfall, though, is more likely the result of a strong El Niño cycle that has parked the jet stream right over the mid-Atlantic states.
Still, there’s some rough justice in the conservatives’ cheap shots. In Washington’s blizzards, the greens were hoist by their own petard.
For years, climate-change activists have argued by anecdote to make their case. Gore, in his famous slide shows, ties human-caused global warming to increasing hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought and the spread of mosquitoes, pine beetles and disease. It’s not that Gore is wrong about these things. The problem is that his storm stories have conditioned people to expect an endless worldwide heat wave, when in fact the changes so far are subtle.
Other environmentalists have undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish; they’ve blamed global warming for shrinking sheep in Scotland, more shark and cougar attacks, genetic changes in squirrels, an increase in kidney stones and even the crash of Air France Flight 447. When climate activists make the dubious claim, as a Canadian environmental group did, that global warming is to blame for the lack of snow at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, then they invite similarly specious conclusions about Washington’s snow…
Al Gore, for one, seems to realize it’s time for a new tactic. New TV ads released during last week’s blizzards by Gore’s climate advocacy group say nothing about climate science. They show workers asking their senators for more jobs from clean energy.
Climate change questions on everyone’s mind: Can the record snowfalls tallied in the winter of 2009-2010 be attributed to global warming? Will this type of winter weather be more or less frequent in the future under a global warming scenario? What is the evidence for and against — and what is the certainty of the conclusions reached?
Among the many suggestions that the IPCC be cherished, tweaked, or scrapped by Nature in a recent opinion piece by 5-climatologists, one was by John Christy who proposed a Wikipedia-style assessment process or report. Without providing any substantial details likely due to length restrictions, one has to take the current Wikipedia model and figure out how a complicated scientific assessment would be carried out in the public domain. Well, why not give it a whirl here and see if/how a consensus can be built from scratch using all the available information and expertise already in the public domain? Success is clearly not guaranteed and failure may actually provide some insight into the difficulties associated with Christy’s proposal.
So, here is the task for anyone that wants to participate: do an audit of the winter of 2009-2010 including the blizzards over the United States and put it in context with the current understanding associated with global warming. Tasks will include autopsying the weather/climate conditions responsible for the snow (or lackthereof) over the USA (or subregions), expertly assessing the peer-reviewed (or “not yet” or “grey”) literature on changes in winter cyclone behavior, and developing a consensus conclusion. It would also be grand if a certainty could be put on that conclusion. Obviously there are plenty of starting points with the IPCC, other US climate assessments, the mainstream media, blogs, newspapers and magazines. Thus, the current spectrum of expertise on the topic ranges from climate scientists, meteorologists, television personalities, journalists, all the way to bloggers in their basement. Seemingly, the various actors have different agendas at work.
If this task is set up like a court of law in which both sides are allowed to present evidence, then some modicum of balance should be achieved, and the outcome will not be predetermined. One should not assume immediately that the current weather/climate conditions are inconsistent with what would be expected in the future under UN IPCC climate change scenarios, and I caution all to have an open mind. The comment process here on WordPress, which necessarily nests conversations, is pretty good for accumulating knowledge on specific subtopics assuming clutter and chatter is kept to a minimum.
Even if such a Wiki-IPCC exists, it is still incumbent upon the consumer of the information to digest it and make policy recommendations, which is obviously well beyond what is being attempted here. The shelf-life for such an experiment is pretty short (couple days) as blogs require continued sustenance to keep moving along.
The blizzards of winter 2009-2010 have been truly historic in terms of total snowfall across a large swathe of the Middle Atlantic and New England. A few cities and their tallies: NWS record report.
Philadelphia: “The National Weather Service reported that 14 inches of snow had fallen at Philadelphia International Airport by 7 last night. On top of the 28.5 inches recorded Friday and Saturday, that meant the winter of 2009-10 had surpassed by nearly 5 inches the 65.5-inch total set 14 years ago.”
Washington DC and Baltimore: “As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, the snowfall total for the season in Washington had surpassed the 54.4-inch record set in 1899, and it rose to 55.6 inches by 4 p.m. It was even higher farther from the city, reaching seasonal totals of 72 inches in Baltimore and at Dulles International Airport.”
Vancouver, British Columbia: “Up at Whistler an unprecedented 9.88 metres (32.4 feet) of snow is on the ground, to the delight of Olympics organizers. The first alpine athletes started their training on designated training runs on February 5 and are scheduled to ski on the Olympic courses Wednesday.”
Deep snow at Whistler Blackcomb is not unusual, but reaching the average annual snowfall of 10.13 metres (33 feet) this early in the year is unique. Since snow reporting began in the 1979/80 season, this is the first time that Whistler Blackcomb has received this much snow by the end of January.
While the slopes at Whistler Mountain, where the Alpine and Nordic events will be held, are covered with deep snow, the lower elevation Cypress Mountain venues are not. Snow is being trucked in and flown in to Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver to get the Olympic venue ready for the first event – the women’s moguls.
In an effort go get started, let’s see what various media outlets are saying about the linkages between global warming and the recent blizzards. Do they mention El Nino? Do they have the prerequisite equivocation that “no one weather event can be attributed to global warming” and “weather is not climate” except when it is? Unfortunately this becomes a sobering task in judging the accuracy of science reporting by journalists who must rely on the experts whom they interview. Without naming names, some do a better job than others.
New York Times — Feb 11, 2010 Climate Fight Is Heating Up in Deep Freeze
Skeptics of global warming are using the record-setting snows to mock those who warn of dangerous human-driven climate change — this looks more like global cooling, they taunt.
Most climate scientists respond that the ferocious storms are consistent with forecasts that a heating planet will produce more frequent and more intense weather events.
But some independent climate experts say the blizzards in the Northeast no more prove that the planet is cooling than the lack of snow in Vancouver or the downpours in Southern California prove that it is warming.
But climate scientists say that no single episode of severe weather can be blamed for global climate trends while noting evidence that such events will probably become more frequent as global temperatures rise.
Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes on the Weather Underground blog, said that the recent snows do not, by themselves, demonstrate anything about the long-term trajectory of the planet. Climate is, by definition, a measure of decades and centuries, not months or years.
But Dr. Masters also said that government and academic studies had consistently predicted an increasing frequency of just these kinds of record-setting storms because warmer air carries more moisture.
Time Magazine / CNN — Feb 10, 2010 Snowstorm: East Coast Blizzard Tied to Climate Change (Another Blizzard: What Happened to Global Warming?)
Brace yourselves now — this may be a case of politicians twisting the facts. There is some evidence that climate change could in fact make such massive snowstorms more common, even as the world continues to warm. As the meteorologist Jeff Masters points out in his excellent blog at Weather Underground, the two major storms that hit Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., this winter — in December and during the first weekend of February — are already among the 10 heaviest snowfalls those cities have ever recorded. The chance of that happening in the same winter is incredibly unlikely.
A federal government report issued last year, intended to be the authoritative statement of known climate trends in the United States, pointed to the likelihood of more frequent snowstorms in the Northeast and less frequent snow in the South and Southeast as a result of long-term temperature and precipitation patterns. The Climate Impacts report, from the multiagency United States Global Change Research Program, also projected more intense drought in the Southwest and more powerful Gulf Coast hurricanes because of warming.
In other words, if the government scientists are correct, look for more snow.
There are two requirements for a record snow storm: 1) A near-record amount of moisture in the air (or a very slow moving storm). 2) Temperatures cold enough for snow….According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the globe warmed 0.74°C (1.3°F) over the past 100 years. There will still be colder than average winters in a world that is experiencing warming, with plenty of opportunities for snow. The more difficult ingredient for producing a record snowstorm is the requirement of near-record levels of moisture. Global warming theory predicts that global precipitation will increase, and that heavy precipitation events–the ones most likely to cause flash flooding–will also increase. This occurs because as the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. This extra moisture in the air will tend to produce heavier snowstorms, assuming it is cold enough to snow. Groisman et al. (2004) found a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events in the U.S. over the past 100 years, though mainly in spring and summer. However, the authors did find a significant increase in winter heavy precipitation events have occurred in the Northeast U.S. This was echoed by Changnon et al. (2006), who found, “The temporal distribution of snowstorms exhibited wide fluctuations during 1901-2000, with downward 100-yr trends in the lower Midwest, South, and West Coast. Upward trends occurred in the upper Midwest, East, and Northeast, and the national trend for 1901-2000 was upward, corresponding to trends in strong cyclonic activity.”In 2009, the USGCRP put out its excellent U.S. Climate Impacts Report, summarizing the observed and forecast impacts of climate change on the U.S. The report’s main conclusion about cold season storms was “ Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent”. The report’s more detailed analysis: “Large-scale storm systems are the dominant weather phenomenon during the cold season in the United States. Although the analysis of these storms is complicated by a relatively short length of most observational records and by the highly variable nature of strong storms, some clear patterns have emerged (Kunkel et al., 2008).Of course, both climate change contrarians and climate change scientists agree that no single weather event can be blamed on climate change. However, one can “load the dice” in favor of events that used to be rare–or unheard of–if the climate is changing to a new state. It is quite possible that the dice have been loaded in favor of more intense Nor’easters for the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, thanks to the higher levels of moisture present in the air due to warmer global temperatures. It’s worth mentioning that heavy snow storms should be getting increasingly rare for the extreme southern portion of the U.S. in coming decades. There’s almost always high amounts of moisture available for a potential heavy snow in the South–just not enough cold air. With freezing temperatures expected to decrease and the jet stream and associated storm track expected to move northward, the extreme southern portion of the U.S. should see a reduction in both heavy and ordinary snow storms in the coming decades.
“[T]here’s more energy in the atmosphere and this is stirring things up,” Nye said. “If you want to get serious about it, these guys claiming that the snow in Washington disproves climate change are almost unpatriotic. It’s really, they’re denying science. So they’re very happy to have the weather forecast be accurate within a few hours, but they’re displeased or un-enchanted by predictions of the world getting warmer. It’s really, it shakes me up.”“Well, the world, overall — the world’s getting warmer,” Nye said. “If you like – these phenomenon, by the way, this week, are just generally a result of El Niño, where the Pacific Ocean surface gets a little warmer and this affects the weather in North America like crazy and this is very well-documented, and you can go to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web sites and you can look at this data. The sea surface is warmer, putting more energy in the atmosphere, and making things more turbulent.”
As Ratigan explains:
Here’s the problem – these ‘snowpocalypses’ that have been going through DC and other extreme weather events are precisely what climate scientists have been predicting, fearing and anticipating because of global warming.
Why is that? The thinking that warmer air temperatures on the earth, a higher air temperature, has a greater capacity to hold moisture at any temperature. And then as winter comes in, that warm air cools full of water, and you get heavier precipitation on a more regular basis. In fact, you could argue these storms are not evidence of a lack of global warming, but are evidence of global warming – thus the 26 inches of snowfall in the DC area and the second giant storm this year.
I [Romm] tend to prefer “are consistent with human-caused global warming,” in place of the highlighted phrase, but the words “you could argue” gives Ratigan the necessary caveat for his statement.
Please provide links and quotes for analysis by scientists that I may have missed. Keep editorial comments to a minimum and reserve judgment on the issue until a “consensus” is reached. Consider this an opportunity to participate in your own IPCC.