I was working on updating our Catalina October through May historical rainfall data with this past season’s total, when a friend brought this Scientific American article to my attention. Today’s blog title is inspired by the May 25th, 2012, issue of Scientific American, one in which it was pronounced :
“Climate Armageddon: How the World’s Weather Could Quickly Run Amok [Excerpt]
Climate scientists think a perfect storm of climate “flips” could cause massive upheavals in a matter of years.”
The full, scary article is here. Sci Am, in this article, created the “perfect storm” of sensationalism….alluding here to their sub-title. Worst case climate conjectures are piled to dizzying heights. It has inspired many commentaries like the one I am going to make below. Be sure to read the many comments at the end of the Sci Am article.
What I saw, thinking in the “excitement” vein after the Sci Am article, is that by projecting the trendline (best fit) of our 35 year decline in rainfall we have now just a couple of decades into the future, is that the trendline would reach the zero rainfall point, the x-axis, before long. With that intercept at zero comes the unassailable (or is it?) conclusion that it will no longer rain between October 1st and May 31st in Catalina by 2035!
Fantastic! A show-stopper! Finally, I will be popular. But in reporting this I will have to look very sad, upset, but at the same time be glad inside that I have something great that people will want to hear.
Moreover, these results I am reporting can be expanded beyond Catalina; more excitement! Catalina is MUCH wetter than surrounding lowland areas in the cool season, about 10 inches vs. 5-6 inches, lower areas that include Tucson, Marana, etc. Therefore, this conclusion can be confidently applied to those lower elevation locations as well, ones that have huge populations: No more cool season rain by 2035 in Tucson!
But, why stop even there with our local scene?
Why not assert, since no precipitation station “…is an island, entire of itself”, to paraphrase John Donne, that this trend MAY apply to the entire State of Arizona and adjacent states as well! Now we’re talkin’ some real excitement, 10s of millions of people getting worked up.
Now for the totality of evidence for my end-of-rainfall claim, this graph1:
OK, “truth-in packaging”: its not going to happen, relax.
Here is a long term, quite soothing record of Arizona rainfall over the years, courtesy of NOAA via Roger Cohen, who was commenting on a NM wildfire story in the New York Times with his graph:
In our own Catalina rainfall graph, I don’t have enough data to draw any real conclusions about trends, and that’s clear from this long term graph going back into the late 1890s.
Of course, it is also known by the climate mavens out there, and is also shown in the long term graph, that “Mr. and Mrs. Our Garden” began taking records during one of the wettest periods in Arizona history and in the Southwest as a matter of fact, over the past 100 and more years! Take a look at the NOAA graph above and observe those rainfall values in the late 1970s into the early 1990s. So, if you moved here then, and think the climate was much wetter back then than it is now, you’re right, but it wouldn’t have been our normal climate, either! Get over it, as The Eagles have told us to do; after all, we live in desert where most years are drier than normal.
So, a downward trend after the first ten years or so of the Our Garden rainfall record was inevitable. You need at least 50 years to establish climate normals and trends, particularly around mountainous regions, according to the World Meteorological Organizations statements on climate records.
Note, too, that it was consistently DRIER than here during the past 10 years of “drought” in the late 1940s through into the early 1970s, and also at the turn of the century! Amazing. Man, those were awful times in AZ!
OK, now to be serious for awhile; soapbox time, rant time, what-scientists-are-supposed-to-do time, “ideals of science”, etc. Furrowing brow now…usually people start moving away, etc.
Scientific American is a magazine that tries to be “scientific”, that is, report recent findings in science in an objective manner, and make them understandable for the general public. Great.
Unfortunately, the temptation for a general audience magazine is always one of trying to get the most readers for each issue (“bang” for the “buck”), and the temptation to phrase article titles in sensational terms to gain readership is always present, as I have done in the title of this blog, trying to expand readership beyond the two I have. Its understandable. Even in our best peer-reviewed journals, the hardest ones to get into, Science and Nature, have this temptation to some degree, but mostly avoid it with staid covers and “headlines.”
But going the sensational route has a way of backfiring, like the claims made in the late 1960s into the 1970s about an imminent ice age; that our warm “Interglacial” period between Ice Ages (the Holocene) was about to end, and “global cooling” was going to wreak havoc with just about everything.
Or, more recently, that snowpacks in the Pacific Northwest were going to disappear soon, in just decades like my claim above about Catalina rainfall. Those claims were made by scientists who got carried away by using only some of the data, not all of it, beginning with an era of high snowpacks, as I have done with our Catalina rainfall, starting with an era of high rainfall.
Those snowpack claims, too, were ones that were ripe for a hungry media primed for global warming (or earlier, global cooling) disaster stories which, of course, sell newspapers and magazines and appeared in such media giants as Time, and numerous media outlets. The greater the catastrophic outlooks, the greater the sales.
Snowpacks in the Pacific NW have been increasing since those claims were made, 5-10 years ago. Nor could researchers find any evidence that the temperatures over the past few decades at mountain top level were increasing, something that had to happen to support claims of earlier melting off of snowpacks and less deep ones. If real estate has the mantra, location, location, location, science is supposed to have the mantra, caution, caution, caution.
Now it MAY be that EVENTUALLY snowpacks in the Pacific Northwest WILL decline. But the scientists who made the original sensational claims were incautious. They should have pointed out that it will be a very gradual process and many things might come to bear on such an overall gradual decrease that might make it appear that nothing is happening for years at a time due to changes in weather regimes, like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, Arctic Oscillation, etc.. Those of us who know weather know that there are tipping points in which weather regimes go into a new modes, where low centers like to be changes, and those changes can persist for many years. Why they happen is not known but being investigated.
These kinds of regime tips from one state to another was anticipated by the “Father of Chaos Theory”, E. N. Lorenz, some 40 years ago (e.g., “Climate Change as a Mathematical Problem” when he pointed out the charateristics of atmospheres that are “transitive” (ones that don’t flip-flop into new modes) and “intransitive” ones that do flip-flop into new modes without much “forcing”. Flip-floping is just an inherent property that an “intransitive” atmosphere has and is likely represented by the oscillations mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Interestingly, looking back at all the climate flip-flops that had occurred over the eons of the earth’s history, Lorenz ventured that “human (climate) forcings” can likely be ignored since they had not caused the remarkable climate changes in the past.
Those of us who know anything about the global warming future projected know that REGIONAL effects of GW are dicey; not well known. Some places could really warm up, while some places could even cool off due to, for example, stronger summer sea breezes flowing toward warmer continents, something that may already be under way according to some researchers.
Or, the storm track-jet stream positions might shift and bring cooler weather to a relatively small regions while the globe overall warms up. We know, for example, that troughs aloft (with their cold air) tend to shift inland to the western US as the northern hemisphere warms up in the spring. As that happens, storms with cold fronts tend to move more from the northwest to the southeast, delaying the onset of higher spring temperatures in the West that otherwise might happen.
These regional effects are just beginning to be explored with higher resolution models that can capture regional effects better.
Now we’re ALL concerned today about where the climate MAY be heading.
We, the people, are really wrecking things royally with our air pollution and trace gas emissions. The sky is awful-looking on a regular basis due to smog in huge parts of the world now. What’s interesting is how accustomed, and non-chalant we have become to the “white sky” so prevalent in the eastern US on humid days.
The climate system of this planet is extremely complicated and even now it is not known why the earth’s temperature has stopped increasing over the past 10-15 years while there have been huge increases in CO2 and methane, those gases that are mainly responsible for the projected and past global warmings that have occurred.
We, as scientists, should always pause, take a deep breath of “humility”, when something major like this happens, the recent leveling of the earth’s temperature, when we can’t explain it and start to rethink our hypotheses. No climate model expected this leveling in temperature to happen back when it started.
Here in Catalina we have a “problem” with our climate rainfall data. Its been drying out for awhile, years, really, in the cooler part of the year (October through May), and last winter’s precip did nothing to alter this downward trend even though it was wetter than the previous cool season of Oct 2010-May 2011. That latter one was so dry that there were no spring wildflowers at the end of that awful winter.
Global warming (GW) is the most easily, readily accepted explanation for everything these days, including that big dust devil that went through Catalina a few days ago around 3:30 PM. In the 1950s, it was “atomic testing” that caused all manner of strange weather inthe popular lexicon, 1960s and 1970s, it was global cooling (with scientists on board), and in the 1980s and 1990s, El Ninos caused EVERYTHING strange, beyond what we know El Ninos really do.
Those were fun times for real meteorologists, familiar with the year to year vagaries of weather, ones that lead to extremes of all kinds.
1Since sarcasm is the refuge of a small mind its been said, I have added some more sarcasm to the legends in this graph as well. I am exulting in the small mind! Why pretend to be something you’re not?