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Don’t look now, but the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season could break records

Parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans saw record-high temperatures last month. Meanwhile, the average ocean temperature worldwide came in just shy of the record set in 2016.

On Saturday morning, a tropical depression formed in the eastern Pacific Ocean — the earliest tropical cyclone in that area since reliable record-keeping began in the early 1970s.

These two facts are related: Warming water is changing the size and frequency of tropical storms. And new forecasts show that this year’s Atlantic hurricane season, which will take place between June and November, is shaping up to be among the worst we’ve ever experienced.

Last week, Penn State’s Earth System Science Center released its predictions for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. The team of scientists, which include renowned climate scientist Michael E. Mann, said we could be looking at between 15 and 24 named tropical storms this year. Their best estimate is 20 storms. It could be one of the most active hurricane seasons on record.

That’s assuming there’s a La Niña — a weather pattern that blows warm water into the Atlantic and helps dredge up cooler water in the Pacific, sometimes leading to more tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean and fewer in the Pacific. If a La Niña doesn’t develop, then the scientists predict slightly fewer Atlantic hurricanes this year: between 14 and 23 storms. But signs are pointing toward cooling ocean temperatures in the Pacific over the next several months, which could prevent an El Niño — La Niña’s opposite half, which suppresses storms in the Atlantic — from forming. That portends a busy Atlantic season ahead.

In order to get their results, Mann and his team looked at El Niño–Southern Oscillation — the periodic back-and-forth between El Niño or La Niña — in addition to Atlantic sea surface temperature anomalies in April and climatic conditions in the Northern Hemisphere. The scientists relied on a statistical model that considers the relationship among a large number of climate factors (water surface temperature, humidity, water vapor, etc.) and the historical Atlantic tropical cyclone record. The actual number of named tropical storms has either fallen within the model’s predicted range or exceeded it every year that the scientists have made a prediction since 2007.

Mann’s model isn’t the only Atlantic hurricane forecast out there predicting a busy season. The Weather Company’s outlook predicts 18 named storms, nine hurricanes, and four major hurricanes (category 3 or higher). Colorado State University also predicts a busy season, with 16 named storms, eight hurricanes, and four major hurricanes. The 30-year average is 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes. The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration will release its official outlook in late May.

Just because the forecast says the Atlantic is going to have an active hurricane season doesn’t mean that each of those predicted storms will hit land — there’s no way to predict that this far out. But we do know that the storm-suppressing El Niño looks like it’s going to take a sabbatical this year. The news couldn’t come at a less opportune time. The United States and other countries bordering the Atlantic already have their hands full with the coronavirus pandemic. Another disaster on top of that could strain our already-buckling disaster response system.

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Don’t look now, but the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season could break records

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Photos: What D.C. really looked like when the White House was tweeting about snow

On the evening of Sunday, January 12, the official White House Twitter account sent out a seemingly innocuous tweet.

Of all the things the White House has tweeted, a lovely picture of snow has got to be among the least concerning, right? Wrong.

I love the first snow of the year as much as the next gal, but whoever was in charge of the White House Twitter account could only have been one of three things: mistaken, lying, or hallucinating. That’s because on Sunday, the weather in D.C. rose to a balmy 70 degrees F. The day before, January 11, was even warmer — 61 locations across the East Coast broke or tied their record high temperatures that day. The picture was actually taken about a week earlier, when a flurry of snow did reach D.C.

Here’s what actually happened in D.C. over the weekend.

This woman purchased herself a nice ice cream cone and probably ate it in the park because, again, it was t-shirt weather in January.

These people enjoyed a scooter ride. Notice how they’re smiling in the sunshine and not grimacing into the icy wind. Notice their lack of gloves.

Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

Here’s a shirtless man showing off his cartwheel skills on the National Mall.

It’s quite possible that whoever manages Trump’s social media prescheduled the tweet last week without bothering to take a look at the weekend forecast. But it’s also possible that the Trump administration — which has rolled back environmental regulations, gutted federal science agencies, propped up a dying coal industry, and slashed funding for renewable energy — is so deeply in climate change denial that it made a point of lying about snow falling on the hottest day of winter.

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Photos: What D.C. really looked like when the White House was tweeting about snow

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Climate change fueled the Australia fires. Now those fires are fueling climate change.

Australia is in the midst of a devastating wildfire season that is being exacerbated by climate change. But the fires, which have been burning for months and could rage on for months to come, are also impacting the earth’s climate in several ways. Some of those impacts are well understood, while others lie at the frontiers of scientific research.

The most obvious climatic impact of the fires is that they’re spewing millions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to a vicious feedback loop of heat and flame. But the fires are also kicking up lots of soot, creating a smoke plume that’s circling the globe and could hasten the melting of any glaciers it comes in contact with. Preliminary evidence suggests some of that smoke has even made its way into an upper layer of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, buoyed aloft by rare, fire-induced thunderclouds. That, too, could have subtle but far-reaching climate impacts.

The fires, which started burning at the end of Australia’s winter, raged across the eastern half of the country throughout the spring and kicked into high gear in the country’s populous southeast over the last few weeks. They’re a disaster of an unprecedented nature.

Exceptionally hot, dry, gusty weather, brought on by recurring ocean and atmospheric dynamics and amplified by the warming and drying effects of human-caused climate change, has made it all too easy for an errant match or a lightning strike to explode into a raging inferno. Which is exactly what’s been happening. To date, the Guardian estimates that more than 26 million acres of land have burned nationwide — a region larger than Indiana. That includes over 12 million acres in New South Wales alone, a dubious new record for the state.

Much of the land that’s burning is covered in eucalyptus forest, although flames have also razed farmlands, grasslands, heathlands, and even some patches of Queensland’s subtropical rainforests, said Lesley Hughes, an ecologist and climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. Whatever the fuel source, the net effect on the atmosphere is a massive release of ash, dust, and a cocktail of different gases, including carbon dioxide.

From the start of September through early January, the wildfires released around 400 million tons of CO2, which is roughly the same amount the UK emits in an entire year, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. That’s not a record, he said, noting that considerably more carbon was emitted in 2011 and 2012, when very large fires raged across Australia’s northern territory and out west. But in New South Wales, this year’s wildfire emissions are off the charts.

By any measure, 400 million tons is a significant chunk of heat-trapping gases that will get mixed into the atmosphere, fueling more global warming. “It’s a great example of a positive feedback of climate change,” Hughes said. “It all comes together, unfortunately.”

In addition to carbon pollution, the fires are producing, well, regular air pollution. Since early November, vast smoke plumes have been wafting from eastern Australia all the way across the Pacific to the shores of South America. Just this week, Parrington said, forecasts from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service showed carbon monoxide from wildfire smoke creeping into the South Atlantic, a “really clear indicator of just how intense those fires have been.”

As the smoke circumnavigates the globe, some of it is passing over New Zealand’s alpine glaciers, turning them an eerie caramel color. Lauren Vargo, a glaciologist at Victoria University of Wellington who recently traveled through New Zealand’s Southern Alps, said that the soot is “really clear and obvious” and that “most of the ice on the South Island” is likely to have been impacted. Vargo is currently studying aerial photographs of New Zealand’s glaciers going back to the 1970s. In 40 years of records, she hasn’t seen anything comparable.

Soot on glaciers does more than spoil hiking photos. It reduces the reflectivity, or albedo, of ice, allowing it to absorb more sunlight, which can hasten its melt, said Marie Dumont, the deputy scientific director of the French Meteorological Service’s Snow Research Center. Exactly how much extra melt New Zealand’s browning glaciers will experience over the coming weeks and months is unclear, but the fact that the color change is occurring during the summer, when the sunlight is fiercer and there’s less chance of fresh snow falling, isn’t a good sign.

“It’s super likely that it will accelerate the melt” of these glaciers, Dumont said, “at least for this year.” She added that she wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar, albeit smaller effect on some Patagonian glaciers, given that the wildfire smoke is passing over South America.

“With ice, when we are seeing a color change, it means the change in albedo is about 10 percent,” Dumont said. “That’s already huge. Even a 2 to 3 percent change is a lot.”

Not all of the wildfire smoke is settling on the earth’s surface. More of it is lingering 3 to 4 miles up in the troposphere, Parrington said, scattering light and resulting in ominous reddish sunsets. Where the smoke is densest, it’s likely impacting the weather, said Robert Field, a climate and atmospheric scientist at Columbia University. Over hard-hit parts of Australia, Field said he wouldn’t be surprised if temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees F lower on dense smoke days as soot blocks incoming sunlight. He emphasized, however, that any such effects will be very temporary.

Where the smoke might have a more far-reaching impact is in the stratosphere, a very dry, very cold part of the atmosphere that starts around 6 miles up and is home to fast-flowing jet stream winds. Pollution from the earth’s surface doesn’t often reach the stratosphere, but recent satellite data shows that Australia’s wildfire smoke has hit this lofty mark, a fact that speaks to “the power and intensity of the fires,” according to Claire Ryder, a research fellow at Reading University’s meteorology department.

The most likely explanation, she said, is fire-induced thunderclouds.

Also known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds, these menacing-looking storms, which form when heat from intense wildfires creates a powerful updraft, can blast particles into the stratosphere in a manner similar to a volcanic eruption. Over the past few weeks, the wildfires in southeastern Australia have spawned a series of pyrocumulonimbus events that Neil Lareau, a fire weather researcher at the University of Nevada Reno, called “really superlative.”

The smoke that’s reached the stratosphere may linger there for weeks to months, Ryder said. But exactly what impact it’ll have is an open scientific question.

Volcanic eruptions, she said, shoot tiny sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. These particles reflect sunlight and can trigger temporary cooling at the earth’s surface. By contrast, fire smoke contains carbon-rich organic matter, including particles that are brown, gray, and even black in color. Black carbon, in particular, is a potent absorber of sunlight, and whether its presence in stratospheric soot will ultimately have a warming or cooling effect on the planet is unknown.

It will likely be years before scientists have teased out the full impact of this year’s wildfire season on the climate — first, the fires need to end. But it’s clear the effects have rippled far beyond Australia’s borders. As fire seasons become longer and more intense across the world, understanding this complex web of planetary impacts will only become more urgent.


Climate change fueled the Australia fires. Now those fires are fueling climate change.

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Storm Surge – Adam Sobel


Storm Surge

Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future

Adam Sobel

Genre: Environment

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: October 14, 2014

Publisher: Harper Wave


A renowned scientist takes us through the devastating and unprecedented events of Hurricane Sandy, using it to explain our planet’s changing climate, and what we need to do to protect ourselves and our cities for the future. Was Hurricane Sandy a freak event—or a harbinger of things to come?  Was climate change responsible?  What connects the spiraling clouds our satellites saw from space, the brackish water that rose up over the city’s seawalls, and the slow simmer of greenhouse gases? Why weren't we better prepared? In this fascinating and accessible work of popular science, atmospheric scientist and Columbia University professor Adam Sobel addresses these questions, combining scientific explanation with first-hand experience of the event itself. He explains the remarkable atmospheric conditions that gave birth to Sandy and determined its path. He gives us insight into the sophisticated science that led to the forecasts of the storm before it hit, as well as an understanding of why our meteorological vocabulary failed our leaders in warning us about this unprecedented storm—part hurricane, part winter-type nor’easter, fully deserving of the title “Superstorm.” Storm Surge brings together the melting glaciers, the shifting jet streams, and the warming oceans to make clear how our changing climate will make New York and other cities more vulnerable than ever to huge storms—and how we need to think differently about these long-term risks if we hope to mitigate the damage. Engaging, informative, and timely, Sobel’s book provokes us to rethink the future of our climate and how we can better prepare for the storms to come.

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Storm Surge – Adam Sobel

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New study: Antarctica’s tipping point is closer than we thought.

Antarctic ice sheets have been melting rapidly for hundreds of years, much longer than scientists previously thought, according to a study out Thursday. The findings suggest that estimates for global sea-level rise need to be reworked and that we’re even closer to the day that fish start chasing each other through New York City’s subway tunnels.

The scientists behind the new study in Scientific Reports were able to reconstruct a 6,250-year record of how fast Antarctic glaciers slipped into the sea. They did this by drilling the bottom of the Southern Ocean between Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego and analyzing the layers of mud they pulled up.

The story this mud tells between 4300 B.C. and 300 A.D. is uneventful. But around 1400, the skeletons of diatoms — ubiquitous, jewel-like sea creatures often used for dating ocean sediments — suggest that the weather became warmer. More oxygen isotopes that come from fresh (as opposed to saltwater) started showing up, meaning the glaciers were melting. Then around 1706, the ice began to melt even faster than before.

So natural climate change had cued up the massive Antarctic ice shelves to collapse before human-caused climate change turned up the heat. A random shift in wind patterns has been melting the ice caps for the last 300 years, the scientists wrote, “potentially predisposing them to collapse under intensified anthropogenic warming.”

The more glaciers melt, the more quickly they slide into the ocean. The more quickly ice that was previously suspended above the ocean slips into the water, the more quickly oceans rise and eels get into subway tunnels. This new paper didn’t lay out any new estimates for future sea level rise. But the implication is obvious. A previous study suggested that Antarctic melting alone would raise sea levels by the end of the century as much as 2.25 feet if temperatures increase by 4.5 degrees Celsius. Add that to ice melt from the northern ice caps and high tides are on track to be at least 3 feet higher worldwide by the end of the century, and maybe higher. This new finding suggests that might all happen sooner than later.

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New study: Antarctica’s tipping point is closer than we thought.

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Why Hurricane Dorian is so unpredictable

Hurricane Dorian has been — quite literally — all over the map. The powerful storm is expected to barrel into Florida and parts of Georgia this weekend, potentially as a Category 4 hurricane. If so, it will be the strongest hurricane to hit the East Coast in nearly 30 years. But the storm has been a tricky forecast from the start, and its final destination remains a mystery.

Back in the good old days when Dorian was still categorized as a tropical storm (i.e., Tuesday), there were a lot of worries that the weather system would directly hit Puerto Rico, where people are still recovering from the destruction wreaked by 2017’s Hurricane Maria. On Wednesday, the National Weather Service upgraded Dorian to a Category 1 hurricane, prompting residents of the U.S. territory to rush grocery stores and gas stations to stock up on supplies. But for all that bracing, the storm ultimately ended up just grazing the island and its neighboring U.S. territory the American Virgin Islands.

Hurricanes are, by nature, unpredictable. But experts say Dorian, which has gathered strength relatively quickly over the past few days, has been especially hard to predict. “The National Hurricane Center still doesn’t have high confidence on the hurricane’s track several days out,” Corene J. Matyas, a professor who studies tropical climatology at the University of Florida, told Grist. “Dorian is not following a typical track of a storm in its location.”

A lot of the uncertainty is because the storm is predicted to make a left turn, but the timing and angle of that shift will be determined by its interaction with a high-pressure ridge forecast to build near the storm, Matyas said. “We have to accurately predict this feature to be able to predict Dorian, and the ridge functions differently than the hurricane.”

According to Brian Tang, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Albany, it’s unlikely weather models will have enough information to predict the storm’s path and strength accurately until Saturday. And even then, Tang emphasized we won’t truly know what’s going to happen: “We do not know where Dorian might make landfall in Florida, and whether Dorian hits the brakes before it gets to Florida, over Florida, or after crossing Florida.”

In the meantime, Florida (and parts of Georgia’s coast) are on high alert. As of Friday afternoon, the whole state remains in the storm’s “cone of uncertainty.” (Though the name sounds delightful, it basically refers to the probable track of the center of a tropical cyclone.) On Thursday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for all of the state’s 67 counties, citing the storm’s “uncertain path.”

If Dorian does indeed make landfall on the East Coast, it would be in rare company: It could become the strongest storm to hit the state’s east coast since Hurricane Andrew (a Category 5) in 1992, as meteorologist Philip Klotzbach noted. Once it hits the mainland, Dorian is expected to slowly move inland, where its pace could prolong communities’ exposure to unrelenting winds and rain.

Tang says that’s one reason Florida residents need to be preparing now, even if they’re not within the storm’s cone of uncertainty: “They should make sure they have a hurricane plan and supplies […] and they should follow the advice of public officials, police, and emergency management, especially if they are told to evacuate.”


Why Hurricane Dorian is so unpredictable

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The problem with the ‘warm’ in global warming: Most like it hot

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This story was originally published by Undark and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

With every incongruous 50-degree F day in Boston this winter, I noticed the same transformations in the people around me: Revelers shed their layers of clothing, smiled more, and made polite small talk about what a great, beautiful, or perfect day it was. I’m always on the outside looking in on these interactions. Whereas my fellow Bostonians take delight in the warm, snowless days, I find them inescapably grim this time of year. In light of what we know about climate change, I feel as though I’m clutching onto a season that is systematically disappearing from my part of the world — and that few others care.

In a report called “Most Like It Hot,” the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Americans prefer to live in a city with a hot climate, and only 29 percent prefer cold locales. (The rest don’t have a preference.) Even human psychoses reflect this preference for warmth. Almost always, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are triggered during the cold, dark winter months. Only 10 percent of people with seasonal affective disorder suffer symptoms during the summer. And if you track growth in American cities since the early 1900s, a clear pattern emerges: The biggest upward trends are in places known for warmth.

I have always known that my disdain for warm weather makes me an outlier, but lately I’ve been wondering if it also has something to do with the inertia I’ve witnessed when it comes to addressing global warming — a term, by the way, that has always evoked hell to me, though maybe not to others. Although most of us are now well aware that the potential dangers of global warming go beyond weather — devastating natural disasters, famine, the reemergence of centuries-old diseases from melting permafrost — perhaps a collective preference for warmth has dulled our response to these larger threats that come with climate change. Would there be more urgency and better compliance with initiatives like the Paris Climate Agreement if we were facing the threat of an ice age instead?

It’s not a completely outlandish thought experiment. From roughly the mid-1300s to the mid-1800s, there was a prolonged period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age. Glaciers around the world grew robustly and average temperatures dropped by about 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) from those of the preceding Medieval period. The cooling climate struck Europe first and hardest: Reportedly, it was so cold in some areas that wild birds could be seen dropping dead out of the sky as they flew, and major European rivers like the Thames and the Rhine froze over for such significant chunks of the year that they became reliable roads for carts and horses. 1816 was famously dubbed “the year without Summer,” a dubious accolade shared by the year 1628.

So how did people respond to this onset of perpetual winter? Basically, they spent 300 years just completely freaking out. Then reason and social progress prevailed.

To most people, life during the Little Ice Age was horrible beyond measure. Catastrophes like widespread crop failure, livestock death, famine, and epidemics were common, and child mortality rates climbed. Someone had to take the blame. Witches — who, according to the Bible, had the power to bring on calamitous hailstorms and other weather-related disasters — were widely cast as scapegoats. Present-day economists have shown a correlation between the most active years in witchcraft trials and the coldest spells in the region. In May of 1626, after a brutal hailstorm in southern Germany was followed by Arctic-like temperatures, 900 men and women deemed responsible for the weather shift were tortured and executed.

But this systematic killing wasn’t changing anything, and people saw that. The cold marched on relentlessly. And so while the first half of the Little Ice Age was characterized by fanaticism, chaos, disease, death, and famine, the 18th century saw a turn toward a new, multi-pronged attempt at problem solving, spurred by the Age of Enlightenment.

Across Europe there was a broad move away from beleaguered agrarian societies, whose livelihoods were inextricably linked to practices, like small-scale farming, that climate change could easily topple. Instead, societies began to embrace institutions that were meant to imbue order, stability, reason, and understanding amid climatic chaos: science academies that explicitly excluded theologians; university systems that swelled in size; and improved roads and canals that facilitated the spread of education, medical care, and global trade. This era also saw the publication of books on science-based agricultural reform that would become virtual gospels on subjects like crop rotation, fertilization, and bumper crop storage for hundreds of years to come.

These new systems were put to the test by subsequent cold waves that continued into the 18th century and extended beyond Europe — to places like New York City, where in 1780 the harbor froze so solidly that you could walk from Manhattan to Staten Island. Improved clothing, heat-retaining architecture, widespread international trade, and the increased knowledge about disease management coming out of the universities and science academies all worked to keep death and famine at levels far lower than those that Western societies had previously experienced.

Admittedly, the comparison between our reaction to climate change and those who came before us is imperfect; the people who lived through the Little Ice Age didn’t really understand the science behind what they were experiencing. But their passionate and sometimes extreme cultural, political, and religious responses to the effects of climate change suggest that had they been able to directly and intentionally stop global cooling, they probably would have.

Yet here we are, armed with the knowledge our forbearers were missing, having nonetheless just closed the books on the fourth-warmest year since 1880. Instead of marshalling the ingenuity of an Age of Enlightenment, as our predecessors did, we’ve spent the last few decades in an Age of Complacency.

Leo Barasi, an author who has written extensively about climate change apathy, captured a sentiment shared by many Britons after a heatwave swept through the U.K. last summer. “They believe [the heatwave] was definitely a sign of climate change, just as the science says,” he told the Independent. “But most people’s experience of it was not unequivocally awful — not like a massive forest fire or a terrible hurricane. Some people quite enjoyed it.”

Of course, the fact that most people remain unbothered by warm weather is neither the sole nor most significant reason we’re now nearing the end of the runway for wholesale mitigation of today’s climate change. It’s not that simple, and weather and climate are not one in the same.

But at the most basic human level, our gut feelings about our day-to-day experiences with weather do matter. They inform our inclinations about preserving the long-term patterns of climate — and preserving those patterns means protecting the winters that some people hate. It’s time to reckon with what that means for the future of our climate.

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The problem with the ‘warm’ in global warming: Most like it hot

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Your weather tweets are showing your climate amnesia

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This story was originally published by WIRED and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Every time someone in a position of power (for example) says that a cold snap in winter proves that climate change is not a thing, a dutiful chorus responds with a familiar refrain: Weather is not climate. Weather happens on the scale of days or weeks, over a distance relevant to cities or states. Climate happens over decades, centuries even, to an entire planet.

The problem is, guess what timescale and space-scale people live on?

The question of what can make human beings understand climate change is literally an existential one. It’s complicated by humans’ pathetically short lifespan and their attention-span, roughly akin to that of a cat in a laser-pointer QA lab. How can anyone expect people to grasp the planetary, millennium-encompassing implications of their half-remembered actions? There’s bad news on that front, and as is customary with bad news, it comes from Twitter.

From a database of 2.18 billion tweets sent by 12.8 million people in the continental U.S. — stripped of all identifying information except for date and location — a team of climate researchers isolated the ones that talked about the weather. Specifically, they looked for tweets talking about whether it was hot or cold. And then they compared the volume of those tweets to the “reference temperature” for the county where they originated; which is to say, they looked at historical data for whether that county was seeing an unusual number of hot or cold days over time.

In one respect, the researchers found what you might intuit. People bitch about the weather when the weather’s bad. But then, curiously, they stop. What used to seem extreme starts to seem normal. “If you have a recent history where you have abnormally warm or colder temperatures, that reduces the probability you’ll tweet about the weather,” says Fran Moore, an environmental scientist at UC Davis and lead author of a paper about this in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s not that people get used to that new normal, though. They just get sort of blind to it. Moore and her colleagues ran the non-weather tweets from their Twitter corpus through two different automated systems for sentiment analysis, the Valence Aware Dictionary for sEntiment Reasoning (VADER) and the much less cool-ly initialized Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. Sentiment analysis is still a field where smart people could disagree on whether it works, but even so, both analyses of the emotional content of these tweet streams showed the same thing. “People stop tweeting about these unusual temperatures,” Moore says, “but as best we can tell, the temperatures are still making them kind of miserable.” Yes, miserable even for Twitter.

It has been about a century since people began pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in earnest. Climate researchers rely on millennia-old data like tree rings and ice cores to show change. But, Moore says, it takes just about five years for people to forget what used to be normal. The cartoonist Randall Munroe had it right in a 2013 XKCD strip: “What used to be normal now feels too cold.” And that worries scientists like Moore, because it might mean that people essentially get amnesia when it comes to climate change. The variation is too subtle for anyone to notice or do anything about — until it’s not, when it’s too late. Which, arguably, is now.

Broadly this idea is called “shifting baseline syndrome.” As happens a lot when it comes to ecological disasters, the ocean researchers noticed it first. As commercial fisheries fall apart, what constitutes a “large catch” gets defined downward, as the marine biologist Daniel Pauly wrote in 1995. As the overall climate takes on the quality of non-stationarity — where past performance no longer predicts future events — memory gets shorter and shorter. It’s not historical, nor generational, nor even extending as far back as childhood; all we’re left with is now.

Or maybe not. Don’t panic. “It’s an important finding to see what they call the remarkability, the noticeability, of these unusual weather conditions tends to decline over time,” says Peter Howe, a geographer at Utah State University who studies people’s understanding of climate. “The effect they’re finding is real. What it poses are some interesting questions about how that relates to perceptions and opinions.” In Howe’s own work, which uses survey data as opposed to the clever expediency of social media, people in 89 different countries have been able to tell when the overall temperatures were going up.

Weirder still, the weather didn’t change people’s minds about climate change as much as the other way ‘round. People who understood that human activities were warming the planet were more likely to perceive weather events as being related to climate change. Those who didn’t, didn’t. And people’s opinion about climate change correlates with nothing so highly as their political affiliation. “Our pre-existing belief about the issue, driven by political factors and other things, shapes what we think we’ve experienced,” Howe says.

Yet even that baseline is shifting. Data from surveys conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show a marked change over the last five years. Since 2013, the number of Americans who are worried about climate change has gone up 16 percentage points, to nearly 70 percent overall. The number who think it’s human-caused has gone up 15, to 62 percent. Those trends hold across the survey — and across political leanings, as well. So, sure, 95 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats are “very” or “somewhat worried” about global warming. But so are 32 percent of conservative Republicans, up from just 14 percent five years ago.

The quinquennial National Climate Assessment and the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the National Intelligence Community emphasized the present, ongoing dangers posed by human-caused climate change, from extreme weather to deaths from heat to disease outbreaks to displaced persons. More than a fifth of all the corn planted in the U.S. is genetically modified to be drought-tolerant, suggesting that no matter what farmers think about climate change, they know the climate is changing. Even petrochemical companies acknowledge in court, on the record, that climate change is real, dangerous, and human-caused (while continuing to pump out of the ground and sell the chemicals that cause it — arguably their fiduciary duty, genocidal though it may be).

Despite the mnemonic frame-drag suggested by Moore’s Twitter research, most of the country is on board with getting something done about climate change, whether it’s a Green New Deal or some other attack on the problem. As a climate scientist (herself something of a skeptic) observed to Andrew Revkin in National Geographic, the last bastion of disbelief is the White House — which is, let’s be honest, one hell of a bastion.

The next step, then, is to figure out what makes people believe humans are changing the climate even as their own baseline shifts. “We’re not trying to say that this result means that no one’s going to believe in climate change, because people’s own experiences of weather are not the dominant piece of information they use,” Moore says. “What you could say is that you can’t expect people’s experience of weather alone is going to passively convince them.” So next she’s going to try to figure out if events other than temperature change might have more of an impact — wildfires, hurricanes, or coastal flooding. Weather definitely isn’t climate, but extreme weather may still change some minds.

See more here – 

Your weather tweets are showing your climate amnesia

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It’s official: El Niño is back. Now what?

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Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that El Niño — the periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, with weather consequences worldwide — has officially arrived.

El Niño typically peaks between October and March, so it’s pretty late in the season for a new one to form. This year’s El Niño is expected to remain relatively weak, but that doesn’t mean this one won’t be felt — in fact, its cascading consequences already in motion.

El Niños normally happen every two-to-seven years, but this is already the sixth El Niño of the 21st century. It’s also the first since the so-called “Godzilla” El Niño of 2015-2016, which boosted global temperatures to all-time records, snuffed out entire coral reef ecosystems, and created havoc for about 60 million people worldwide. There’s some evidence that El Niños are becoming more frequent and more intense due to climate change.

The advent of this El Niño means that 2019 is “almost certain to be another top-5 year,” wrote Gavin Schmidt director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in an email to Grist. He gave “roughly 1-in-3 odds” that 2019 will surpass 2016 as the warmest year on record, thanks in part to the boost from El Niño.

Most short-term climate models show Pacific Ocean temperatures remaining unusually warm for at least the rest of this year, and a few hint that a bigger El Niño could form within about six months — though forecasting that far ahead is notoriously tricky.

This winter has been warmer and wetter than usual for most of the West Coast — a classic sign of El Niño weather. After years of drought, California snowpack currently sits at about 130 percent of normal, and on Thursday, Los Angeles officially surpassed its “normal” annual rainfall threshold for the first time in years.

In the short term, this El Niño is likely to keep pushing stormy weather ashore out West, especially in Southern California. Judging by past weak El Niños, the rest of winter elsewhere in the country could be cooler and wetter than normal, especially for the Northeast where snow has been notably absent so far. El Niño could bring some late-season snowstorm doozies for the East Coast as well as severe weather and flooding in the Southeast. Later this year, it’s likely that widespread wildfires will return to portions of the West Coast (new grasses and brush from the wet weather will become kindling in dry weather) and Southeast Asia, and severe drought could afflict East Africa and Australia.

The biggest potential consequence of this El Niño is its effect on global temperatures. Carbon dioxide is driving the long-term acceleration of global warming, of course, but there’s evidence that El Niño droughts prevent carbon dioxide uptake and permanently worsen climate change. The five warmest years in history have occurred in the past five years, and odds are that 2019 temps will rank second in all-time weather records. Should El Niño intensify later this year, 2020 would be even warmer, and may even be the first year to breach the much-feared 1.5 degree Celsius mark.


It’s official: El Niño is back. Now what?

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Despite the U.S. cold snap, January was hot hot hot

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This January should be remembered for its unusual warmth, not its cold.

Yes, it’s so cold right now that even hardy Minneapolis is shutting down schools, but even with these few days of extreme cold, Minnesota should end up with a near “normal” month thanks to weeks of unusual warmth. It was in the 70s and 80s as far north as Maryland on New Year’s Day. Alaska has been so warm that they’re canceling sled dog races. So far this month, there have been 651 record daily highs across the United States, compared to 321 record daily lows — a roughly 2-to-1 ratio. And that’s just in the U.S.

Globally, the ratio of record highs to lows was about 20-to-1, with new all-time records in Namibia, Chile, and Reunion Island.

It’s summer in the southern hemisphere, and a brutal heat wave in Australia is melting roads and killing wildlife on a mass scale. On January 18, one town never dropped below 96.6 degrees F — marking the hottest night in Australian history. Thursday was the hottest day so far in relatively mild Sydney, with temperatures reaching 104 degrees F and knocking out power for tens of thousands of people.

Ongoing bushfires in Tasmania are threatening a World Heritage site with thousand-year-old pine trees — parts of the same area burned in 2016. Fires in this protected alpine wilderness were once unheard of; now they’re becoming routine.

To put it bluntly, events like this can’t happen in a normal climate. The harsh truth is we are not only losing the weather of the past, but there’s no hope of it stabilizing any time soon.

Underlying this warmth and extreme weather is the irreversible heat buildup of the oceans. The waters in the South Pacific are off the charts right now, triggering the highest alert for coral bleaching and boosting the likelihood of significant mortality in marine ecosystems. Sea ice on both poles is near record lows, with profound effects for the world’s weather. Current temperatures in the Arctic are likely the warmest they’ve been in at least 115,000 years, with melting ice beginning to reveal plants and landscapes buried for at least 40,000 years, according to new research.

Climate change is the sum effect of changes to daily weather, and our weather these days is bordering on indescribable. We are pushing the atmosphere into uncharted territory. That means what happens next is inherently unpredictable.

According to the Trump administration’s just-completed National Climate Assessment, “positive feedbacks (self-reinforcing cycles) within the climate system have the potential to accelerate human-induced climate change and even shift the Earth’s climate system, in part or in whole, into new states that are very different from those experienced in the recent past.”

The real danger of climate change is not that we are proving ourselves unable to heed scientists’ warnings, but that those warnings are inherently too cautious and we’ve already gone past the point of no return. Even the bombshell IPCC report, which recently kicked off an unprecedented youth movement advocating for a Green New Deal, may have underestimated how dire things truly are.

This is the core truth of our time: We have left the stable climate era that gave rise to civilization. Our society is brittle, and our new context — for generations to come — will be constant change. Even if we manage to rapidly stabilize greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 years or so, as the IPCC report says we must, weather will continue to worsen for decades and the seas will continue to rise for hundreds of years.

With this extreme month as yet another warning sign, we need to wrap our heads around what it will take to match our solutions with the scale of the problem.


Despite the U.S. cold snap, January was hot hot hot

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