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Confusing weather with climate

Tuesday Almanac: 83 degree high in the Twin Cities, trace of rain. 87 degree high at Canby. Possible tornado touch-down in Cottonwood County (far southwestern MN).

Minnesotans pride themselves on their weather-tenacity, their super-human abilities to withstand anything Mother Nature can throw at them, and come back for more. “Is that all you got? Go ahead, hit me again, harder!” We are a state of Weather Warriors, hardened by frontal passages that would leave normal Americans trembling with fear, immunized by extreme cold that would leave friends and family clinging to either coast in a weather-induced coma! We’ve seen it all, we’ve paid our dues, there isn’t much capable of surprising us anymore, right?

Right? This summer has been a real head-scratcher though, I have to say. Remember back in mid April, when we saw two days in the mid 90s in a row? “Gonna be a stinking hot summer at this rate! Watch out, get ready for a real scorcher!” True, the mercury has topped 90 five days so far. We’ve seen a few muggy days, no question, but so far the summer of ’09 has been a puzzle. The first half of June felt like late April. Then we warmed up dramatically, only to see the pattern return to an almost September-like pattern in recent days, the jet stream shoved unusually far south, emptying cool, Canadian air south of the border. Last week a cool front reached all the way to the Gulf Coast! That almost never happens in July. Signs of global cooling? The scientists are WRONG after all? Not so fast. Many still confuse weather with climate. Even otherwise rational, logical adults get the two mixed up, reaching sweeping conclusions after a spell of unusual “weather.” It’s tempting to stare out the window and reach sweeping, global conclusions, but it’s short-sighted. Meteorologists like me track day to day “weather” around the planet – we rely on climatologists who study surface-based observations, over land and oceans, as well as sophisticated satellite sensors that measure planetary temperature trends over long periods of time – years, decades, centuries, millenia. No, the global thermometer record goes back to the mid 1800s, but we have valid “proxy data” going back hundreds of thousands of years: ice core samples, tree rings, sediment from lake bottoms. All can be analyzed for trace gases, including greenhouse gases.

Look, I’m all for concept of a free lunch. Sounds great! Maybe a 38% spike in greenhouse gases, most of that in the last 50 years, won’t make a difference. Perhaps there won’t be any consequences. Maybe I’ll grow a full head of hair and win the Daytona 500. There’s always hope. But as a realist, a pragmatist, I realize (deep down, under many layers of rationalization and denial) that actions USUALLY have consequences. Call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s much of a stretch. What if the vast majority of climate scientists (and I’m sorry – it still IS a vast majority, many thousands of them around the world) are right? I’m not going to go nearly as far as Al Gore and compare climate change with Nazi denial (doesn’t he realize this kind of rhetoric plays right into the hands of the deniers? Talk about a sound bite!) but I look at it the same way I look at my insurance policy on my house and my car. Odds are pretty good I won’t get into an accident, or burn down my house making scrambled eggs Sunday morning. But am I willing to completely ignore the possibility, bet the farm. Smile my best Pollyanna Smile and say, “no worries, everything is going to be fine!” If there’s a 30% of a thunderstorm do you consider taking an umbrella? Most rational, thinking people do. If there’s only a 30% chance that climate change is real, and the melting glaciers, rising sea levels, accelerating changes in Greenland and the Arctic, increased frequency of drought and flooding worldwide – are a signal that something is out of kilter, do we owe it to ourselves, and future generations of mini-me’s running around the yard 50 years from now, to take this issue seriously, put away the political name-calling and come up with pro-business, job-generating, renewable-energy-friendly, oil-weaning, anti-pollution solution that makes good, common sense? I think so. BTW, that’s the longest sentence I’ve ever written. Sorry. My 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Eisenhart (how can I remember that!) would be appalled. I own 2 businesses. I’m not crazy about my taxes going up either. But if we can get China, India and others to agree to taking the same steps we are (a big if) and if we can thumb our noses at Middle Eastern oil countries that don’t like us very much, invest in new (green) technologies that put hundreds of thousands to work, then why wouldn’t we get serious about hedging our bets?

Enhanced (NexSat) IR (nighttime) image of the USA, courtesy of NRL, the Naval Research Lab in Monterey, California. For the very latest image go ahead (don’t be afraid!) click here.

Enough. Sorry for the detour, but I get irked by people who spout nonsensical statistics from a blog or dubious web site, and don’t really LOOK at the science. All I ask (I’m pleading now) is that you – the weather enthusiast – keep an open mind. Consider the source. Consider the vested interests (who are just fine with the cashflow-producing status quo). What’s in your grandkids best interests? In the end this is a scientific discussion, wrapped in a smelly political fist-fight, which makes me crazy. I consider myself a social conservative, and just because I think climate change is real doesn’t label me a radical or an extremist. I’m just looking at a large (and growing) body of science out there, really weighing the evidence. I’ve reached my decision, but I too am keeping an open mind. If another theory comes along that truly addresses what we’re seeing in the data -worldwide – be it sunspots or solar fluxes, anything, I’ll be the first to change my mind. When thousands of (peer-reviewed) papers all agree, more or less, that it’s not man-made greenhouse gases, but something else, then I’ll go with the flow. But it won’t be based on some phony web site or “institute” being paid off by Exxon to spin the results.

No where was I? Shifting gears from climate back to weather. Take a deep breath, Paul. Break the tablet in half. Deep breaths. Better. Yesterday was another fascinating day, weatherwise. That’s what I LOVE about Minnesota weather – it’s rarely boring. St. Cloud and the Twin Cities were on the northern fringe of some very heavy (to severe) showers and thunderstorms. St. Cloud picked up .02″ of rain, the Twin Cities saw a few drops of rain. Meanwhile there was a report of a tornado in Cottonwood County, in southwestern Minnesota. Spring Valley saw 3/4″ hail. Severe storms dinged the southwestern corner of the state before roaring into Iowa. I know, strange to have storms moving from northwest to southeast in early July.

SPC Storm Reports for Tuesday, showing tornadoes (red), damaging hail (green) and straight-line winds (blue dots). To see the very latest reports click here.

Computer models are hinting at a few random, stray showers and T-showers today, although moisture (and instability) will be limited. We’re close enough to a stagnating frontal boundary that we can’t rule out a couple hours of rain, a few marginally severe storms may rumble into far western Minnesota, but I don’t see a statewide outbreak of severe weather, not today.

WRF/NMM Prediction for 7 pm today. Again, this is a forecast of rainfall from 1 pm to 7 pm today, showing the greatest potential for showers/storms over Iowa and Illinois, just a few stray storms over the southwestern half of Minnesota.

SPC Prediction for Thursday into Friday morning. Thursday the atmosphere floating overhead will be more unstable, irritable, a riper environment for T-storms to sprout (and spin). That could mean a better chance of large hail, even an isolated tornado or two. I do expect watches and warnings to be issued Thursday. Keep that in the back of your mind….not sure I’ll get that boat cruise in Thursday evening…

NOAA/HPC (Hydrological Prediction Center) 5 Day QPF. That’s “meteorologuese” for quantitative precipitation forecast, which is an impressive way of saying how much rain will fall. If only this were true…..the QPF (from experience) tends to overplay the rain. I HOPE parts of Minnesota do, in fact, pick up 1-2″ of rain in the next 5 days. The more reliable WRF/NMM model is hinting at closer to .20 or .30″ of rain, most of that coming (in a few hours) late Thursday. But a guy can hope…

6-10 Day Temperature Outlook for the USA. Yesterday hot-weather fans (myself included, assuming the air conditioner doesn’t break down again) got excited. The GFS was hinting at a stretch of 90s the end of next week. Not to burst your hot-weather-bubble, but the latest run of the very same model now is pretty adamant that the northern stream of the jet stream, a cooler-than-usual northwesterly wind flow aloft, will win the day, keeping any real heat well south/west of Minnesota. Not exactly jacket weather, but expect a run of 70s, maybe a few days in the low 80s. No dog days in sight – yet. Keep in mind, historically, our hottest weather tends to come the last 2 weeks of July. That said, I’m starting to seriously doubt whether we’ll see our normal allotment of 13 days above 90. That’s for an “average summer”. I ask you – when was the last time we had a spell of average weather recently?

To call up the latest 6-10 day outlook for USA temperatures and precipitation click here.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Roach on 07/08/2009 - 12:53 pm.

    I really like these articles, Paul. It’s frustrating to see a good science topic like climate change being avoided by so many because of the political heat it generates.

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