Why deny climate science?

Imagine you are an astronaut who has just returned from the International Space Station and you meet a Flat-Earther… how would you even go about that argument? 

Climate science and evolution are two sciences denied by many. In the case of evolution-denial, a creationist view is faith-based. Those who believe that God made the Universe 6,000 years ago (or equivalent) at least get a religious ‘kick’ out of it. I’m not saying that belief is a good thing (far from it – I think evolutionary science is an incredible human achievement and filled with beauty), but at least I can somewhat understand the mindset that leads to it (or the root of the belief – a religious text).

I cannot say the same for climate science denial. I just don’t understand what motivates it. What is the benefit to the individual? Does it make you feel good to think that all the experts are wrong?

Now, I do what I can to help the environment. I could do much more – I’m aware of the scale of the problem. But I don’t refuel a diesel car or use a petrol lawn-mower and feel riddled with guilt. My scientific opinion on climate change doesn’t follow me around like a dark cloud. I don’t overuse fuel in order to save money, primarily.

When the World Health Organization listed bacon (and other processed meats – of which you probably consume more than you think!) as definitely carcinogenic, I didn’t deny it – I’m not a medical scientist, and I’m sure good science was done in order to reach that conclusion. Equally, when we meteorologists and climate scientists announce that greenhouse gases are causing global warming, I don’t expect non-experts to take issue with that. Whether you act on it is something else, but don’t turn around and say, “Ha! Have you even considered the urban heat island?“. An every-day equivalent would be responding to an F1-trained mechanic informing you that your car needed a new engine by saying “Really? Did you check the oil?”. 

Of course they checked the oil.

In truth, what deniers say to climate scientists is often hurtful, and sometimes very difficult to respond to, purely because of the extent of the misunderstanding – not because we can’t support our science. It’s also plain baffling what some deniers say. When you’re just an excited or concerned scientist doing your thing, experiencing people thowing wild accusations at you is just…bizarre.

So, to all climate scientists – from those currently braving the harsh Antarctic winter, to those dealing with difficult questions from the media, to those who have been sitting coding for two days straight (or more!) – I salute all of you, for everything you deal with.

Going Viral: Some thoughts one week later

Sunday, July 22, 2018, 9:31 PM BST. I put out a relatively simple tweet comprising of two NASA GISS global temperature anomaly graphics – one for June 1976, and one for June 2018. After listening to the media and meteorologists alike comparing and contrasting the current UK heatwave with that of 1976 (something which I had earlier written about here), I felt it necessary to put it into some global context: the planet as a whole is far warmer than it was in 1976 – meaning that regardless of the final ranking of the 2018 heatwave in the UK, it occurred with a different climate background. The heatwave, alongside record-breaking heatwaves across the Northern Hemisphere, is symptomatic of climate change. It has a different meaning in today’s world.

I did not in any way expect the response the tweet gained – with close to 14,000 likes a week later. Initially, I thought it might rile up a few ‘climate change deniers’ (I had a genuine interest in what might get said in response…) but after it surpassed by previous highest like/retweet count within a few hours, I knew something special was happening! I have no real idea of how far and wide the comparison went, as some didn’t relay any credit back to me for the original idea (e.g. a BBC News special “Feeling the Heat” which aired on July 26, and Met Office blog post using their HadCRUT data). Not that it bothers me – they are NASA’s graphics, after all, and I’m just happy to get a conversation going. Special thanks to Leo Hickman of Carbon Brief for helping me keep track of the various media appearances!

I’ve been looking at NASA’s GISS maps for years – the plotting tool on their website is a fantastic way to play around with climate data. Seeing a comparison like 1976 vs 2018 wasn’t surprising to me, but it occurred to me that the public don’t regularly see imagery like that – especially in such a relevant and meaningful way. It told a story. Telling the general public that the globe is X degrees warmer than it was 100 years ago, or showing them a line graph doesn’t really work – hence the success of my tweet and other novel visualisation ideas, such as the ‘climate spiral’ and ‘warming stripes’ by Professor Ed Hawkins – the original climate science viral sensation from the University of Reading! As I stated in the tweet thread, graphics like those I posted shouldn’t be surprising – global warming isn’t new, and the planet has been much warmer (relative to normal) than it is currently (try plotting February 2016 for a real shock).

Perhaps initiated by my tweet, or perhaps a coincidentally, the media – and scientists – quickly began widely discussing the relationship between climate change and the heatwaves across the Northern Hemisphere. The tweet seems to be the reason why the phrase ‘global heatwave’ gained so much use – I have seen it used before my tweet, but my use of that as a hashtag seems to have made it mainstream. It is not meant to suggest everywhere is under heatwave conditions – just that this heatwave is part of something bigger; that the planet itself is warmer than normal (i.e., a ‘heatwave’). It’s perhaps a bit of flippant phrasing which I can understand disagreement with.

However, whilst this has been the best-reported and most clear-cut example of linking climate change to ongoing weather, it did strike me that in some cases it was reported as though this was, in some way, new. A BBC News article from August 2003 (“Heatwave part of global trend”) could have been extracted word-for-word and used in 2018. The story then: a heatwave in the UK, but also deadly heatwaves around the world as global temperatures rose. 15 years later, and the story is the same. Yes, we have come a long way in 15 years in terms of our understanding of the climate, but the story is the same and the expectations are (broadly) the same. How long until it is accepted that the future we predicted is now happening? How long until we stop speaking of ‘heatwaves are expected to become more common due to climate change’? Climate change isn’t something we should continuously speak of in the future tense – it has happened and it is happening.

If you’ve read this far and are still with me, I added some of my ‘in the moment’ thoughts on July 24 to my first post on Reading’s Meteorology PhD blog site, “The Social Metwork”.

Right. What do I tweet next?

Heatwave Summers: There’s more than 1976 & 1995

2018 has been a remarkable summer. On the back of the warmest May on record (since 1910) for the UK, we saw the 3rd warmest June (featuring the 2nd warmest daytime maxima) which was also the 5th sunniest and 9th driest (3rd driest for England). The first half of this summer has been the driest on record for the UK. Temperatures have remained consistently very warm, with localised regions seeing prolonged and sometimes record-breaking dry spells. Were it not for a wet spring, we might have more concerns than we already do about water supplies (with only United Utilities so far issuing a hosepipe ban). 2018 has yet to see a very hot spell, though that may change in the coming few weeks – climatologically the warmest time of the year (for example, the UK’s record temperature of 38.5°C was set on August 10th 2003).

But will this heatwave be remembered?

I pose this question because the manner in which this summer has been reported would seem to suggest we’ve only ever had one heatwave in the UK: 1976. At a push, maybe 1995 too. But the truth is, of course, far from that.

Even just last year featured a memorable heatwave. June 2017 saw 5 consecutive days of temperatures exceeding 30°C somewhere in the UK, with a peak of 34.5°C on June 21 marking the highest temperature recorded in June since…yes, you guessed it…1976.

Until this year, the driest first half of a summer was 2013, which also featured a 19-day streak of temperatures exceeding 28°C somewhere in the country during July (which was the 3rd warmest and 3rd sunniest). Yet, aside from the astute meteorological observer, no-one I speak to seems to remember it happening – something I find astonishing because of the contrast after the 2007-2012 spell of very wet summers!

Other remarkable summers have occurred in recent times. July 2006 is the warmest month on record for the UK, and set the warmest July maximum temperature record (later beaten in 2015). 2003 saw a severe heatwave across Europe which resulted in setting the UK’s all-time maximum temperature record of 38.5°C on August 10th, a month which went on to become the UK’s 5th warmest August. August 1997 was the 2nd warmest on record for the UK, only slightly behind 1995. And before 2006, July 1983 was the warmest month on record for the UK.

In terms of mean temperatures for the UK, 1976 is only 3rd (tied with 2003) with 2006 taking pole position. However, 1976 and 1995 are the top 2 in terms of maximum temperatures, followed by 2006 and 2003. Rainfall wise, the driest summers are 1995 and 1976, followed by 1983.

I can’t deny that the string of hot temperatures, and the truly “flaming” June of 1976, were incredible. The water shortages caused by the preceding hot summer of 1975 (even more forgotten, with a hotter August than 1976!) and dry 1975-6 winter, were historic. But other historic heatwaves have happened since.

So, will people look back and remember the dry and hot summer of 2018? Only time will tell, but the evidence of “forgotten” recent heatwaves seems to suggest it won’t get the recognition it deserves.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing.

Perhaps people don’t spend as much time outside anymore – as someone who’s outside a lot (aside from being a meteorologist) I have always noticed the warmer spells even in a poor summer.

Perhaps, because the summers preceding 1976 were so much poorer (the 1960s lacked anything that could be called a ‘heatwave’ summer), we’ve just become accustomed to warmer summers and there’s less of a ‘wow’ factor when a heatwave does come along.

Despite all of that, I’d like to think people will remember this summer due to England’s performance in the World Cup and how well it timed with the peak (so far) of the heatwave. If only we’d won it, then it would really be a magnificent combination!

I’ll close with this thought: has anyone ever said “Summer weather was so much worse when I was a child!”.

Thoughts upon finishing the MMet

Yesterday (May 11), at about 10:50am, I completed my Master’s Degree in Meteorology and Climate (MMet) at the University of Reading.

The exam – Oceanography (perhaps not the most typical way to end a meteorology degree, but I guess it highlights the diversity of the subject).

The way I finished it? Ending a question on the thermohaline circulation with, “And with that, I’ve finished my degree!”.

It’s a surreal feeling when it’s a moment that’s been coming for the last four years. It’s been a long slog. Like everyone who studies meteorology at university, I can confirm it’s a tough subject – full of concepts and equations that (for me at least!) have required a caffeine addiction (thanks, Taylors of Harrogate) and a lot of head scratching to understand to the required level. From linear algebra and differential equations, to fluid dynamics in the laboratory, boundary layer fieldwork… and hours of programming. The Reading degree is thorough, to say the least. But it was everything I could have wanted, and more. I finally have the understanding of the atmosphere (and, apparently, the oceans as well!) which I so craved when I first became interested in the clouds above my head.

What’s worth more, though, is the understanding of the sheer scale of the atmospheric science discipline, and just how much I don’t know. The most challenging class I took was Advanced Synoptic at the University of Oklahoma (taught by Howie Bluestein, all-round meteorology legend and someone who can plaster the whiteboard with the semi-geostrophic equations and make the whole thing less daunting than it should be!). I’d probably show the notes I made in this class to anyone who thinks that meteorology is just about standing in front of a weather map saying it might rain tomorrow. Here’s a brief look at them:

Deciding to study the MMet degree at Reading was the best decision I ever made, and it’s opened up a world of opportunities for me – both here and in Oklahoma, where I spent my third year. I’ll be studying for a PhD in Meteorology from September, sharing my time between Reading and Oklahoma yet again (which I’m super excited about).

Thank you to all the staff at Reading and OU for making it all worth it, and for sharing your knowledge in a consistently entertaining and passionate way. Thank you to all my fellow students and friends, who sufferred and celebrated through the degree with me. And, thanks to everyone on #WxTwitter – I’ve learnt a great deal from all of you!

I couldn’t recommend the MMet strongly enough to anyone with an interest in the atmosphere. You won’t regret it!

Reading Half Cancellation: Do people believe forecasts?

This year’s Reading Half Marathon was cancelled at ~6:40 AM on the day of the race (Sunday March 18) due to substantial snow in Reading and the surrounding area (indeed, across most of England…). The cancellation of the event only ~4 hours before runners would be taking to the course was far from ideal, with many having travelled from afar and stayed the night in Reading. As expected, there was much consternation on Twitter and Facebook, with runners venting their frustration at the last-minute cancellation. As both a meteorologist and a runner, this clash of my two favourite things was a bizarre experience.

The question is – was this last-minute chaos avoidable?

The answer, in my opinion, is a firm YES. And I believe the problem lies with the trusting of forecasts.

On March 13 (5 day lead time!), it became very clear from forecast models that the “Beast from the East” would be returning in time for the race. Cold temperatures were certain, but the extent and intensity of snow was more difficult to predict. I tweeted the Reading Half, enquiring under what circumstances the race would be held off:

I received no reply. As I had seen the Bath Half cancelled with the first “Beast” event earlier in the year, I was very aware that the same fate could befall the Reading race.

By Friday March 16, the Met Office had issued yellow warnings for snow in Reading with a more severe amber warning nearby. The forecasts for Reading (models such as the GFS, ARPEGE, etc.) indicated 3-5 cm of lying snow on Sunday morning. With the model consistency, the severity of the alerts from the Met Office and the huge distances people travel for the Reading Half, I was convinced enough at this point that the race should be cancelled:

Still, the race organisers made no mention of snow and just kept mentioning cold weather. They were determined to ‘plough on’ (pun intended). The announcements were mainly that they were “gritting the route” – which is all fair enough, but hardly going to work very well with significant snowfall, and not going to help those travelling from afar.

Come Saturday, the Met Office forecasts had become worse for Reading, with heavy snow indicated all night. Forecast models still suggested 3-5 cm lying snow on Sunday morning across the south. Runners began to feel less at ease with the idea of it going ahead, and those travelling far wanted clarity.

By Saturday evening, with heavy snow already falling, the organisers cancelled the kids’ fun run, and left Half runners with the statement that a “final confirmation could not yet be made”. More bizarrely, they stated that “if conditions deteriorate further” then they would reconsider.

Prof. Mat Owens from the Reading Met department was just as confused as me, and expressed his feelings toward the race in a great tweet:

 

The forecast was for exactly that overnight deterioration to happen, and it was still the same message that had been said for days.

metoffice

Met Office forecast from 6 PM on Saturday indicating high likelihood of HEAVY SNOW.

I went to bed knowing the Half would be cancelled, yet having to “pretend” as though it were on…just in case it was…somehow. I woke up at 6:15 AM to the expected 3-6 cm of snow, and had to wait until 6:40 AM to find out it was indeed cancelled.

Now, before criticising too much, I want to say I love the Reading Half. I’ve run it twice, and both races being up there with the best experiences in my life. I’m aware it’s a tremendously big and important race.

However, why did it take until the snow was there, lying on the ground, covering the start line, the route and the finish line, with the M4 and M5 paralysed, for the organisers to believe the forecast? The situation that unfolded on Sunday morning was exactly as predicted. There must have been a moment on Sunday where the organisers said, “Oh…the forecasts were correct.”

The fact is, we can now forecast so accurately that a 1 day forecast is pretty much a certainty, unless it’s for a shower in a given location (which we might never be able to accurately predict). The reason we have made such advancements in forecasting power is precisely to avoid situations like this. It’s one of the greatest achievements of the human race. It’s also perhaps the most under-recognised.

What INFURIATES me, is that the announcement on the day claimed that conditions had deteriorated “more than forecasted”. That is, when it comes down to it, a lie. Either that, or whoever was providing the forecasts was not giving the best available forecast. They claimed to have been in contact with the Met Office…well, the Met Office forecasts I was looking at had expected exactly what happened.

 

Capture

The official race cancellation announcement stating that conditions “deteriorated more than forecasted overnight”.

In my opinion, the announcement was to try and make forecasters a scapegoat for poor event management, with too much concern for a false-alarm scenario: “what if we cancel it and then it doesn’t snow?”. I was lucky to have not been so badly affected by this as I live only 2-3 miles from the start line – for those who travelled, I feel deep sympathy.

I sincerely hope Reading Half have learnt their meteorological lesson. And I hope people begin to understand that, whilst of course sometimes the forecast goes wrong, we can now trust it in times like these – and that’s thanks to the pioneering work of many meteorologists, data assimilation scientists and computer programmers over the last few decades.

It really is quite amazing.

But if anyone knows what reasons they had to fully believe the race could safely go ahead until 6:40 AM on Sunday, then please let me know – I’m all ears.

So…why the stratosphere?

On February 23rd, I accepted an offer of a SCENARIO-funded PhD studentship in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading for the project “How can the stratosphere help us predict the weather several weeks ahead?“. The project is supervised by Andrew Charlton-Perez and Steve Woolnough at Reading and Jason Furtado at the University of Oklahoma – giving the exciting opportunity to spend some time working in the School of Meteorology at the National Weather Center and attend conferences in the USA.

It’s a big thing taking on a PhD and I felt it made sense I elaborate somewhat on why I’m interested in the stratosphere. I’ve been talking about the stratosphere a lot recently thanks to the first major Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW) in 5 years. I found myself presenting about the SSW in the Department’s weekly ‘Weather and Climate Discussion‘ in the presence of several Year 10 work experience students – hopefully attempting to inspire future stratosphere researchers as I myself embark on that journey! The timing of my PhD offer couldn’t have been better – what’s better than having an interview for a stratosphere-related PhD whilst there’s a big fat ridge sat over the Pole at 10 hPa?

Boundary Layer meteorologists have it easy explaining their interest: “it’s where we live!”. Tornado researchers simply find awe in the atmosphere’s most destructive phenomenon that you can go out and watch. But the stratosphere? It’s not even the ‘sphere’ where weather in the traditional sense occurs! So how did I get ‘into’ it?

January 2009 saw one of the strongest SSWs on record – a wave-2 vortex split event that reversed the 10 hPa 60°N zonal mean zonal wind from record-strong westerly to record-strong easterly. The Met Office announced the SSW and explained how this meant we were going to see cold conditions with a risk of snow. As a 13 year-old I hadn’t seen much in the way of snow (yet…) so this was very exciting! I was fascinated by this phenomenon and it immediately made me realise the atmosphere was far more complex and beautiful than I’d first thought (and I was already in love with it).

The Met Office news release was accompanied with this diagram:

met office ssw

I remember being captivated by this and had a thirst for a better understanding. I began asking questions: How does this happen? How do the stratosphere and troposphere interact? How does this lead to cold outbreaks in the UK? Why does this give increased predictability?

As time went on, I continued to find the stratosphere fascinating – the almost intangible nature of its dynamics – vertically propagating planetary waves, the Polar Vortex, the Polar Night Jet Stream, the Brewer-Dobson circulation…perhaps it was something to do with this being a less well-understood subject, and certainly one so complex it wasn’t often in the public eye. I had always been fascinated by the large-scale motions of the atmosphere – and it seemed in the stratosphere, I’d found the largest scale of all.

In the first year of my undergraduate Meteorology degree I attended an RMetS meeting entitled “Stratosphere-troposphere coupling in the Earth System: where next?“. Much of it went way over my head, but it didn’t put me off and made me want to know more! In second year, I gave a presentation on the unique 2015-16 Polar Vortex, whilst in third year I took a ‘Weather Briefings’ class with Steven Cavallo and always found myself talking about the Polar Vortex! At any opportunity, I’d talk about the stratosphere.

And with all of the meteorology sub-disciplines, most of which interest me on some level, the stratosphere was the one that stuck. I couldn’t be more happy to be researching it further, and helping to improve subseasonal forecasting. It’s a dream come true – especially since I’ll be able to return to Oklahoma, too!

I summed up my interest to the work experience students as:

“Isn’t it incredible that something so entirely abstract that happens 50 km above your head can directly influence the temperature of the wind blowing in your face?”

Winter 2013-14: When the Rain was Tropical

This morning, I watched as my aneroid barometer here in Harrogate, North Yorkshire slowly crawled upwards towards 1030 hPa. It’s a far cry from the forecast surface pressure in the next few weeks across the USA, but it’s also a far cry from what was happening on this day 4 years ago.

At least in Harrogate, 18 December 2013 marked the start of the infamously cyclonic winter of 2013-14. I took “daily” barometer observations throughout that winter. (Rather unscientifically, I don’t actually know what time each day I took these readings and it definitely wasn’t consistent – but it still serves as one record of the extraordinary winter.)

DJF2013-14

The transition on the 18th from a strong anticyclonic regime to the cyclonic “hell” that followed is clear, and I’ve shown that with 2 different averages (dashed lines). The period during February also pushed my barometer to its limits…the scale runs to 965 hPa, which is the minimum value I’d noted down during the winter (Feb 8th).

I distinctly remember the onset of the winter reminding me of the wet summer of 2012, as both came on the back of a dry spell (though 2012 was much more significant in that regard) [and believe it or not, I stood beside Thruscross Reservoir in early December 2013 and remarked of its low water levels that “if we don’t have significant rain soon, we’ve got a problem”…we ended up with a very different problem!]. The swing from extreme to extreme is a signature of how both events were driven by stationary amplified patterns in the jet stream – both before and afterwards – something which has been a subject of recent research in the context of climate change.

Based on analysis from a Met Office report and subsequent journal articles, an enhancement of convection in the equatorial western Pacific (plus a few other things en-route) played a strong role in driving the wet winter of 2013-14 in the United Kingdom. Isn’t it just fascinating to think of torrential tropical downpours in Indonesia – an entirely different kind of rain – driving wet day after wet day in the UK? I think this serves as a reminder to always enjoy the weather – there’s always some fantastic dynamics behind it, even if it is just another rainy day.

I co-authored a summary report of the winter whilst studying Synoptic Meteorology Laboratory at the University of Oklahoma last year, which if you’re interested is available here: Winter 2013-14 Summary.