25 April 2013

Bruce Melton : Calling all Earthlings

Alien beings emerge from “What Was Once Lake Buchanan” as the water level falls. Photos by Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog.
Calling all earthlings:
Climate change communications
may as well be from aliens
Relative to most of the 20th century, Austin’s January highs and lows were not 2.9 and 1.4 degrees above normal, but 9.9 and 10.4 degrees above normal!
By Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog / July 25, 2013

AUSTIN -- Average temperatures have risen rapidly at the Austin reporting station since the turn of the century but the National Weather Service’s 30-year average “normal” temperatures show little of this change yet. Average April highs and lows have risen 3.5 and 5 degrees respectively. The average August temperature has risen 5 degrees and the average January high and low has risen 6 and 9 degrees respectively.

Because the National Weather Service’s 30-year averaging procedures mask this recent rapid warming, a valuable tool in climate change communications lies unused.

We Earthlings who are not climate scientists do not have the telepathic powers necessary to understand how our climate is truly changing. Someone must tell us directly. Local temperature change is a prime example. We've heard a lot of “warmer than normal” since about the turn of the century, but when the details get broken down, accuracy falls behind.

Climate change is so far different from what most of us think that a change in communication tactics must happen very soon; otherwise we will continue on this business as usual path of denial and delay until we have a global climate catastrophe that cripples the world’s economy.

The challenge is akin to that frog in a pot on the stove. This is a terribly cruel “cooked alive” analogy, but is it any more cruel than what we are doing to our future society because of delay on climate pollution action? As the analogy goes, the water in the pot gradually heats, the frog does not notice until it is too hot and he is dinner.

Climate change is insidious. The definition of insidious fits the process well. Insidious: proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects; working in a subtle or apparently innocuous way, but nevertheless deadly. It has snuck up on us because it only changes a little bit every year. It is already creating dangerous impacts to our society on a planetary scale, yet we as that society know very little of these impacts.

The way the weather is presented to us is one of the major reasons for our ignorance. There are many things that our media weather presenters could do that would help us Earthlings understand climate a truckload better than we do, but one stands atop the heap. Every 10 years the National Weather Service (NWS) refigures their “normal temperatures” that we hear on the weather report every day. They look back to the previous 30 years for these calculations. So every ten years, the averages change a little bit. In 2010, the averages were refigured for the period 1980 to 2010. In 2000 they were refigured for 1970 to 2000, etc.

This is fine and dandy when our climate is stable. Our climate has changed a lot lately and this technique masks the changes. The process is designed on purpose to mask relatively short term weather changes (less than 30 years) because traditional meteorology acknowledges that short term chaos in weather does not reflect “climate.”

But in our carbon-saturated 21st century new rules have arrived. Climate scientists warned us for decades that their models said an abrupt climate change would occur if we did not begin to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. Instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we ignored this counsel and almost doubled our emissions. Not surprisingly, this abrupt change is now happening and 20th century meteorology is hiding the abrupt change in its 30-year temperature averages.

Urban heat island

Before I go further, let me address the urban heat island because the temperature records I am talking about could be influenced by the heat island. This is one of the biggest of the perceived controversies in the so-called debate, and rightly so. Anyone who has driven into or out of the city on a cool night has experienced the extra heat that is absorbed by concrete and buildings in urban areas.

Climate scientists (not meteorologists) correct for the heat island by looking at rural weather stations surrounding urban areas and applying a correction factor to the urban records. The corrected global average temperature change, what is presented to us by the media as the effects of climate change, are corrected for the urban heat island. But the everyday weather stats presented to us on teevee are not.

In the last several years climate scientists have even begun to use satellite images of night lights to help locate those truly rural weather stations that they use for their corrections. Time goes on. Science moves ahead. We get more accurate information as a result (most of the time).

NASA brings us night vision satellites for a deeper look at our planet. Climate scientists use these “nightlight” images to help correct for the urban heat island effect in their average global temperature records. Shown is a crop of the Texas coast. Houston, Corpus, Brownsville, San Antonio, and Austin are the largest masses of lights. New in the last several years however is an odd crescent of lights that run from southwest of San Antonio to the northeast. These lights are all oil rigs drilling the Eagle Ford Shale in the latest oil fracking boom. The white spots in the Gulf are oil platforms.

To bring the heat island effect into perspective for the historic average temperature records that I want to discuss for the Austin Mabry station, we need to understand how the heat island has historically impacted the weather recording station in Austin. To do this is easy enough in a generalized way. Simplistically, all we have to do is compare the historic average temperature in Austin to population growth. If the urban heat island is impacting the weather station, the temperature should rise as does the population.

Average Temperature and Population for Austin Texas 1900 to 2012. All weather stations are different. Some respond more adversely to the urban heat island effect than others. Austin’s is one that does not show a lock-step similarity in the urbanization/heat island effect. If it did, it is quite likely that the local average temperature would have continued to rise in the late 1950s as Austin’s local population began to soar.

This is by no means a scientific evaluation, but it does shed light on the issue of the heat island, at least relative to the official temperature record for Austin. The red line shows our rapid population growth and the blue is the average annual temperature. I will not deny that the heat island effect is strong in Austin, but to say that the heat island effect is strong “at the weather station” in Austin is a different animal altogether.

Weather stations are set up by design to minimize the influence of the surrounding geography on the temperature measured at the weather station. It can be blisteringly hot in the middle of a giant asphalt parking lot but just a couple of hundred feet away in the middle of a grass covered ball field, or in a forested area for sure, the temperature can be much cooler.

The techniques used to assure that weather station thermometers record an accurate temperature have been refined for over 200 years. Some places still need to be adjusted though, so these techniques are being ever-more refined as is the case with the nightlight satellite imagery.

What the numbers are telling us about the average temperature for April (1948 through 2012) at the Austin Mabry Station are:
  • The NWS 30-year average high and low April temperatures have warmed 2 and 2.5 degrees respectively since the 1980s, but
  • The 10-year high and low April temperatures have warmed 3.5 and 5.5 degrees respectively.
The 2 to 2.5 degrees of warming in 30 years may just be normal climate fluctuations (probably not), but the 10-year changes are likely what climate scientists have been warning us would happen. This is the abrupt climate change that their models have been predicting for a generation. As we continue to use the 30-year averages without effectively communicating our current temperatures relative to the normal temps of the last century, our frog is being cooked without our realizing it.

The warnings have been that at some point the “lag” in climate change would catch up to greenhouse gas concentrations and we would begin to see a rapid rise in temperature. This “lag” is generally considered to be two to several or more decades. In other words, today’s temperatures are what they are because of greenhouse gas levels in our sky from the 1980s, not greenhouse gas levels in the sky today.

Since 1980, the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere has increased from about 335 ppm to about 397 ppm. Between the mid-1800s and 1980 the CO2 concentration increased from about 280 ppm to 335 ppm. So we have doubled the amount of greenhouse gases in our sky since the 1980s.

Because of the climate lag, we have another 4 degrees F or more of warming already built into our climate -- even if we were to stop emitting all greenhouse gasses this instant. This “lag” is caused mainly by the cooling effect of the oceans. Who in Texas hasn’t enjoyed a wonderfully cool summer day at the beach when just a few dozen miles away it was a sizzling 100 degrees?

Flattening temperature myth

Let me address another huge myth now. This is the “Flattening Temperature Myth.” Some would have us believe that Earth stopped warming about the turn of the century, and if we look at the temperature record it looks like this is a valid statement -- but we must understand the context. This flattening is simply a product of the massive high temperature record set with the Super El Niño of 1998. Erase that 1998 Super El Niño record and global temperature has not “flattened” at all.

The thermometer record has experienced two major flattening trends: from the late 1800s (end of the Little Ice Age) to the 1920s and then from the 1940s to about 1980. The current flattening is a product of the great Super El Niño of 1998. If we remove the Super El Niño from the record, the flattening trend that remains is similar to many more “flat” periods in the thermometer record other than just the two mentioned.

Austin’s average temperature record does not have a giant high temperature spike in 1998 so this myth does not float in this boat. And for Austin’s record to be different from the global record is quite normal. Some places will warm more than others and some places (a very few) will even cool a bit, at least for a while.

Abrupt climate change is here, it has caught up with the lag, and from here on it’s toast or be toasted. The models have been quite accurate so far and they tell us that things continue to get worse even faster. It's the 10-year averages that are important now because climate changes like we are now undergoing -- abrupt climate changes -- happen far faster than 30-year time frames. It is time that we recognize this not only in the media, but in the science as well. Things change, we live, we learn and then apply that new knowledge to life. If we don’t, we is frog legs.

In the last 100,000 years, based on highly accurate temperature records from Greenland ice two miles deep, we have seen 23 abrupt climate changes where global temperature changed up to a dozen degrees F in as little as several decades or less. The ice shows the biggest of these changes, that happened when climate was being forced the fastest, happened (in Greenland at least) in several years or less. Remember two things now: warming over land is twice or more what it is over water and we are changing our carbon dioxide concentration 14,000 times faster than anytime normal in the climate record in the last 610,000 years.

So, because climate change impacts have skyrocketed since the turn of the century (Greenland melt, Arctic melt, Antarctic melt, increasing sea level rise, forest impacts, and here in Austin, record drought and wildfires) we need to be looking at non-traditional climate averages, not the 30-year averages of 20th century climate. This is no longer our old climate. It has changed and is rapidly changing further.

Greenwood acres Pier on Lake Buchanan.

The new normal

January’s averages are even more astounding. Climate scientists have been telling us their models show more warming in winter and more warming at night in winter. Since the 1980s, the 30-year NWS highs and lows at Austin Mabry have warmed 4 and 2.5 degrees respectively but the 10-year highs and lows have warmed 6 and 9 degrees! Do you remember hearing any of this on the nightly weather report?

When the weather person says the weather today should be exactly normal, there's a large inaccuracy in his or her statement. In January in Austin, the NWS normal low today is almost 10 degrees warmer than what it was in the 1980s! But J.Q. Citizen goes about his business thinking that the weather is as normal as normal is normal.

The NWS tells us that January’s (2013 average) high was 2.9 degrees above normal and the low was 1.4 degrees above normal. But this is the NWS 30-year average. Relative to most of the 20th century, Austin’s January highs and lows were not 2.9 and 1.4 degrees above normal, but 9.9 and 10.4 degrees above normal!

This is one of the simplest and likely most effective techniques to educate the public about climate change. Our media weather presenters simply need to talk about it. They need to talk about it all the time. This information is endlessly available to the meteorologists who give us the forecast every night, but ferretting out these statistics and reporting them is not something they are accustomed to doing.

Almost everything of importance in the weather is based on long-term averages. With abrupt climate change, these averages need to be seriously reconsidered. Our climate is no longer stable. Why should we be using statistics that are based on a stable climate?

Please try and talk with your local weather information source and tell them that it is their responsibility to inform the public of this kind of information. It’s time to kick the delayers off the island and get along with the solutions to climate pollution.

It’s OK to start talking about climate change. It’s important that we get this moving. The delayers are now among the minority. The number of people offended by actively discussing climate issues is diminishing rapidly. And besides, we the “believers” now have a majority of votes -- even in Texas.

[Bruce Melton, a regular contributor to The Rag Blog, is a professional engineer, environmental researcher, filmmaker, and author in Austin, Texas. Information on Melton’s new book, Climate Discovery Chronicles, as well as more climate change writing, climate science outreach, and critical environmental issue documentary films can be found on his website and at climatediscovery.com. Read more articles by Bruce Melton on The Rag Blog.]

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