Adam Sobel: Science In The Eye Of The Hurricane

It’s summertime! That means county fairs, stone fruit, and hopefully a cool body of water in which to dip one’s toes. Of course, it also means record temperatures and the beginning of hurricane season. Today on Sea Change Radio we are talking weather with Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University. We discuss the difference between climate and weather, learn about the importance of accurate forecasts in the age of extreme weather, and dispel some preposterous myths about climate scientists.

Narrator  0:02   This is Sea Change Radio – covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Adam Sobel (AS) 0:25  We’re not trained to advocate for one side we’re trained to find the truth which is, which then comes across as sounding equivocal and weak when you’re arguing with an opponent who isn’t interested in finding the truth but only wants to advocate one side no matter how the evidence looks.

Narrator  0:40  It’s summertime. That means county fairs, stone fruit, and hopefully a cool body of water in which to dip one’s toes. Of course, it also means record temperatures and the beginning of hurricane season. Today on Sea Change Radio, we’re talking weather with Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University. We discuss the difference between climate and weather. Learn about the importance of accurate forecasts in the age of extreme weather and dispel some preposterous myths about climate scientists.

Alex Wise (AW) 1:39  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Adam Sobel. He’s a professor at Columbia University. Adam, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Adam Sobel (AS) – Thank you for having me.

AW – So explain for our listeners Exactly what you do at Columbia because you work in, in several departments there, right?

AS  1:57  Yes, I’m a professor of Applied Physics and applied mathematics. That’s one department, Earth and Environmental Sciences. That’s another and I’m also part of the Lamont Doherty Earth observatory. But really, I study weather and climate. I would say I’m an atmospheric scientist if I had to give one label.

AW  2:12  So Adam, a lot of the op-eds you’ve written over the last four or five years have been reactions to the latest storm. There’s people want to hear from an expert when their community is being devastated or threatened by the latest hurricane. I read a quote from a climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf, which I thought was a good way to explain what a lot of people may have trouble doing, which is climate versus weather. He says, predicting global warming is like predicting how fast a pot of water will warm if you know, the power output of the stove. Predicting weather is like predicting where and when the next bubble will rise in a boiling pot. So why don’t you kind of explain the work that goes behind the scenes? There’s a lot of money, and a lot of great minds going in to trying to predict when the next bubble will rise in this boiling pot….

AS  3:14  Well, I think there’s a few different things. I mean, so there’s hurricane forecasts where we actually, people, it’s just a form of weather forecasting. And that is not so impossible as it sounds, if you’re trying to predict the bubble just for a very, very short time, you know, so in other words, when people, when you get a forecast of a hurricane, usually the hurricane has already formed. And somebody, the forecasters are trying to predict where it’s going to go and how strong it’s going to be. And that’s sort of like they’ve already seen the bubble start to grow in the bottom of the pot. And part of the work of weather forecasting over the last three decades, as you write has been to reduce that time that window from it used to be only two days before a hurricane would hit. You might know about it.

AW – Now, we have five to seven days beforehand. And that means a tremendous amount when it comes to trying to save lives, right?

AS  4:07  Yeah, the the improvement in weather forecasting over the 20th. And now really 21st century is an amazing success of modern science and engineering that doesn’t get enough press, I think, because it didn’t come through any single brilliant breakthrough. It’s just a lot of work by a lot of people over many years. But yeah, we can predict weather like we didn’t used to be able to and every decade is better than the one before and it and it saves lives. There’s no question about it. But that’s different than the global warming question. So in the global warming question, we’re asking not, you know, could we predict the storm? But can we say, to what extent the fact that this storm happened when and where it did and had the properties that it have? what extent was that influenced by human activity? You know, would it have happened the same way otherwise? Or were the odds of it increased or maybe even decreased by the fact that the atmosphere is getting warmer due to carbon dioxide that we’re emitting and that’s a challenging thing to answer for a lot. reasons but we’re getting a bit better at doing it for some kinds of weather systems, we’re better at doing it for heat waves are the ones where we can say the most like every heat wave nowadays basically is juiced up by global warming, you don’t almost don’t have to do any work to show that anymore, because it’s just simple, the whole planets warmer. And so every heat wave is a little more likely if you measure heat wave just by some threshold of how warm it is for how much amount of time. But But hurricanes are trickier. And so the kind of statements we can make are a little less confident. But we do think that as the planet warms, hurricanes are getting stronger, we’re pretty sure that they’re producing more rain. And because sea levels higher they are when they produce floods due to storm surge, which is blowing the ocean water onto the land, that’s a little easier to do if the sea level starts from a higher place. So there’s various ways that hurricanes are influenced by climate, well, we don’t know is whether global warming will make the number of hurricanes on the earth be more or less, we used to think it was more than we thought it was less than now I think we just don’t know. And that’s kind of troublesome. But so then when, when we say what was this hurricane caused by global warming, that makes it kind of hard because we can’t say so easily? Well, the hurricane was more or less likely to happen in the first place. Because we actually don’t know that. But we can say, because we’re pretty confident about them getting stronger and producing more rain, we can say, well, the same hurricane would have been a little weaker, would have produced a little bit less rain, if it had been, you know, the pre industrial climate of the climate before people.

AW  6:30  I think that the shot across the bow for a lot of people may be communities that hadn’t really experienced this kind of extreme weather, suddenly getting exposed to it, when those those bubbles that are rising in the pot start to spread out even more.

AS  6:47  Yeah, I mean, that can happen either because of global warming, or just because of the short memories of human society. I mean, there’s hurricanes are generally rare events in a lot of places. And so, you know, like Hurricane Sandy in New York, which is the one that I have the most, you know, the hurricane, I have the most intimate connection with that one, I think, you know, could have happened anyway without global warming. And and it’s a similar one we think happened a couple 100 years earlier. So it’s just, you know, that that you have a rare event, and our memory isn’t that long. But then there’s also the phenomenon that, that as the planet warms, we do expect and and arguably already see that climate changes is spreading a little bit the range of where they happen. So they’re one way or another, there definitely will be people experiencing them, who haven’t experienced them before or not in living memory, or even, you know, longer than living memory. So and those are the types of places you have to worry about the most because they’re generally not prepared someplace that gets hammered over and over again, you know, like Taiwan, they’re pretty good at it, because it’s happened so many times that they’ve learned how to cope, but but other places where they’re much rare events. Often people haven’t. And so those are where sometimes the worst disasters happen.

AW  8:01  Seems like this climate skeptics kind of relish the super cold snaps, that’s the one that they’ve decided to cling to as proof that global warming doesn’t exist. So you write about kind of defending and explaining polar vortex vortices, tip to laymen, why don’t you expand?

AS  8:23  Well, there’s two things going on there. I mean, one of one of them has nothing to do with climate change. And that’s just that a few years ago, a weather reporter, and I think I know who it was, but I won’t say guy who’s very talented and qualified, knowledgeable weather writer, writing about a cold snap in the northeast us wrote that it was because of the polar vortex, which is a term that just hadn’t been used a lot in the popular media. It’s a term that is used by people in my field scientists in my field, but it’s used in kind of a couple of different ways. And so although the guy who started it explained it well enough, I think it caught on and now every time there’s a cold snap here, people say oh my god, the polar vortex again. And and it’s it’s, I think it confuses more than it helps sometimes to introduce a new word for things people already knew what it was, which is just it’s cold. But now, you know, now it’s the polar vortex of make people think that some totally new thing is happening. So yeah, a few colleagues and I wrote a little article to try and explain that after seeing a few years of those bad stories, I think they’re getting better now that the words been in use a few years. So that seems now that we have this sort of a new generation in the last decade, I would say of, of well educated people who write full time about weather and climate, they start using more technical language because they know it and then it it. It’s exciting for the science nerds, but it’s sometimes frustrating too, because then other people don’t always use it so well. So that’s the first thing is just the language changing of how people describe weather. But the other thing is this thing of every time there’s a big cold snap, you have somebody and nowadays it’s often the president saying oh well, we Like global warming, it’s cold, you know, and it’s it’s really just tired. I mean, those of us in the field, just roll our eyes. I think when the president says this, he’s just trolling us, I don’t even think he believes that this is a cogent argument. I mean, you know, it just doesn’t, I mean, global warming, climate change just means the whole planet is getting a little bit warmer, but it’s not getting so warm, that winter is gonna stop happening or that there aren’t going to be cold snaps. So the argument that it is, is just plain old, confusing weather and climate in the most naive and ignorant way. And I think most people who do it are just trying to yank our chain. It’s not a it’s not a serious argument. But then we feel we have to counter it again and again and again, in the media. I mean, I think the other the other interesting thing that’s been happening is that there is a line of research coming out of legitimate scientists in the field, which says that these cold snaps are happening more often in the warmer climate, even though that’s kind of paradoxical, everything should be warmer. But basically, when when we get these polar vortex events or these cold snaps, it’s because air that’s coming from the pole from you know, the Arctic, in the case of the Northern Hemisphere, is blowing down to our lower latitude in New York City say, and so, you know, even though everything’s warming, it still gets cold if we get air from the North Pole, because that air is still colder than the air here. And so the argument is that because of the Jetstream is changing in a way such that even though everything’s warmer, we’re more likely to get those polar air outbreaks. So some people when this happens, and we get a cold snap, you know, some people say, Oh, well, there’s no global warming, because it’s cold. And other people say, Well, actually, paradoxically, it’s cold because of global warming. I don’t think that’s true. I, by the way, I think this science linking these cold snaps to the human influence on climate and global warming is, is not, I’m not convinced by it. And I think many of us in the field or not, I’d say it’s still controversial. But anyway, that’s another thing. All these things happen in the media at the same time, it seems like a couple times a winter. And it’s interesting to have these debates sometimes but also frustrating at other times, because because sometimes the debate can be at a high level. And sometimes it can be at a pretty low level. And we wish we didn’t have to have it at all.

(Music Break)

AW 13:20  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. That was Dr. John, the great Mac Rebenack, who passed away at the age of 77 this week. One of my favorites and he will be missed. So we’re speaking with atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel. So I’ve noticed in law that the right wing has kind of created a separate tract of alternative facts. When it comes to law schools. There’s like Liberty University Law School, when you see when George W. Bush became president, there was this flood of newly minted attorneys from right wing law schools that probably didn’t even exist 3040 years before, has there been a push from the right wing to create an alternative view academically? Or their Liberty University climate scientists, for example?

AS  14:14  No, I mean, they haven’t even made that effort. I mean, that’s the remarkable thing about it. I mean, there is a climate denier literature. There are documents that look like there’s something called the UN IPCC which stands for not non-governmental Panel on Climate Change and is something that I believe it’s the Heartland Institute puts out I just got it in my mailbox, not read not requested. They find all the scientists and send it to them unsolicited, you know, it’s a bunch of fossil fuel industry propaganda, but, but if you look at it, it’s incredibly thin on actual evidence and argument. I mean, there’s stuff that looks like science, but but I mean, this is what’s so frustrating. It’s like there is really no alternative climate science in the sense of people actually doing research. And publishing papers based on data, there’s no alternative infrastructure. Or or, you know, this is where the whole idea of the 90% 97%, or whatever it is, comes from, if you read the scientific literature, there just is no alternative literature. So the argument could be that, well, somebody is doing it, but it can’t, you know, get through because of the group thing. But the truth is, it’s simply not being done, nobody can make a credible climate model that can, for example, that can predict, you know, the normal day to day weather in El Nino, and all the things the way that our mainstream climate models can, and that simultaneously doesn’t produce global warming when you put carbon dioxide into it. I mean, there just is no, there is no alt science. So it’s not as though we really have to refute it. We just have to refute, you know, bad faith pseudoscience, that that has a sciency look to it, but isn’t really backed by any anything. And you know, there’s it’s not like there’s shoddy research, there’s just no research on that side.

AW  15:53  And it’s a lot easier to attack than to defend and the science community is consistently being put in a position are those scientists who are more public facing have to consistently defend their research against non scientists, when they say, well, we got to look at both sides of the science, but there’s, there’s really no science on the other side. It’s just people trying to pop holes in your research. Right?

AS  16:19  Yeah, I mean, I think well, there, it’s important to say that, you know, when we say the science is settled on global warming, what we mean is the big picture that the earth is warming appreciably due to human emissions of greenhouse gases, and that’s has serious consequences. There are all once you get beyond that very, very broad brush statement. There’s all kinds of disagreement about all kinds of things. So it’s not like all the science is settled, there’s a huge amount that’s not settled. And and there’s a lot that one can legitimately debate, it’s just that the, you know, the there the right wing attacks are not debating that stuff, they’re at a much more coarse level, that’s just trying to sort of trash the science in a in a very, in terms that are not defensible by by the standards of scientific discourse, but this sort of hope nobody will notice. I mean, so you’re right. I think many of us I mean, I’m by no means one of the most prominent scientists in the public, but I’ve done a bit of of it. And I think many of us have come to the conclusion, but it’s not really worth engaging with the most course, right wing attacks, because those are, they’re in bad faith. And, and there’s not much you can do people who really want to believe that you’re not going to win them over. But you always have to worry that there’s a few people in the middle who might be you know, who might need to hear it refuted. So, so many of us do spend some of our time doing that. It’s true. I think it’s true that also true that we’re not totally equipped for it. I mean, in the sense that the attacks are not, the standard denier line is not really using the standards of scientific argument. It’s using a sort of, you know, public, almost a legal standard, where you say anything you can say that you hope might win your listener over, rather than what scientists are trained to do, which is honestly look at both sides and evaluate them and come up with the most true answer that you can, right. We’re not we’re not trying to advocate for one side, we’re trying to find the truth, which is, which then comes across as sounding equivocal and weak when you’re arguing with an opponent who isn’t interested in finding the truth, but only wants to advocate one side no matter how the evidence looks?

AW  18:25  Yes, Stephen Colbert famously spoke about truthiness. And that’s kind of the quote unquote, common sense. attacks are actually very easily thwarted by science. But it might make sense to a layman mean, you could talk to a five year old and say, well, you breathe out carbon dioxide. So is carbon dioxide bad for the environment, that five year old might say no, because I breathe it, it’s very simple to kind of connect dots for people who don’t know anything and steer them into your way of thinking, especially if it means you don’t have to change your lifestyle, and you can just buy whatever car you want.

AS  19:04  Right? I mean, the other frustrating thing is that, you know, there’s all these arguments out there that are sort of standard boilerplate like, well, it’s the sun or the earth has worn before and the ice ages naturally, or it’s volcanoes or whatever it is. And all those have been refuted many, many, many times, countless times in the in the mainstream science, you know, in the academic literature, in popular books, and everything, all the evidence is out there. But if you’re arguing with somebody who doesn’t care, they just say the same thing over and over again, hoping that whoever’s listening doesn’t know that. So in other words, you know, I run into people who say, well, don’t Haven’t you guys considered that it’s the sun. That’s and it’s like, yeah, we’ve considered it a million times, you know, here’s the 1000 papers on it. But somebody can just say, well, you guys haven’t considered the sun. And, you know, if they’re not in the standards of scientific discourse, there’s ultimately some sort of arbiter. We go through peer review where somebody looks at the evidence and decides who’s right and who’s wrong. But if you’re, if there’s no such arbiter in the world that once that both sides will agree on to judge who’s right and who’s wrong, then people I just keep saying the same zombie things over and over again, it doesn’t matter what the evidence says or how many times it’s been refuted. So that’s very hard for us to get used to. Because it’s not how our world works in science.

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AW 21:28  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. I’m speaking to atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel, who’s a professor at Columbia University. So you wrote a piece for CNN about the National Climate Assessment, the NCAA, and you weren’t asked to be a part of it, but explain to listeners what it means to take time off as an academic to participate in something like this.

AS  21:52

Politically, I would think if I were asked to do it, I’d feel somewhat obligated and I probably would, but I wasn’t. So I didn’t. But the I wrote that piece in response to attacks from people on the NCAA itself, saying that, you know, the scientists are doing this are all in it for the money. That was upsetting, because the scientists do, they’re not in it for the money. And so I was just making the point that, you know, I didn’t do it, had I done it, it would come at some cost to myself, I mean, everybody’s doing this in addition to their normal job. So the NCAA, or at least the university scientists are for some federal scientists, maybe they can, they can have some of their time allocated to doing it. I’m not actually sure how that works. But for the academic scientists, you know, they have to do everything they normally have to do. But if they sign up to do the NCAA, then it’s a whole bunch of extra meetings and research and writing that they have to do. So I mean, you know, there’s the there’s the right wing argument overall, that climate scientists are just in it for the money, which anyone who knows us that has anything to do with his business knows is an absurd argument. But for the NCAA itself, it’s even more absurd, because it’s just a bunch of extra work that doesn’t really get you anything in your career, except maybe some contacts. And some you learn something by doing it, I’m sure. But it’s really a volunteer activity that’s that people do as as out of a feeling of obligation to the country. Which is why, you know, I probably would too, if I were asked, but I think that’s come to everyone probably who doesn’t.

AW  23:16  So, Adam, you’re explaining how the system to protect us from hurricanes and other extreme weather events is in place and how it gets paid for. That’s something that we usually just look at it after the fact in terms of FEMA money, etc. But there’s a whole bunch of university and government based research that is going into trying to understand this and giving us a head start on some of these major storms want to kind of give us a glimpse behind the curtain if you will.

AS  23:52  Right. So modern weather forecasts, which are amazingly good by the standards of past ones, are paid for almost entirely by government. In the United States. It’s our government, but also governments worldwide. And we have a great tradition in meteorology, of sharing data with each other. So actually, it’s an international effort, but still mostly funded by government. So the US government makes the observations for the most part, we launched weather balloons that measure temperature, humidity, wind, etc. in the atmosphere. They NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Defense run satellites, look down on the errors then measure all kinds of things in the atmosphere and ocean in the land surface. There’s ground based observations like radars that produce the rain maps you see on TV, all that stuff, then gets assimilated, we call it into models, computer models that are also developed with government funds. Some of the work is done at university I should say, but a lot of it’s done it. Federal agencies the National Weather Service, which is part of the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, university research is paid for by other agencies to At the National Science Foundation, and so that data goes into the models and the models get run with their big computers that do big calc expensive calculations that simulate the atmosphere and those used to produce weather forecasts. And so then what happens at the end is there is an important private sector component. So when you if you get your weather on your phone from weather, calm or Weather Underground, or AccuWeather, any of those, they are taking all that data from mostly government sources and doing another layer of processing on it, looking at all the different models, some of which come from other countries, I should say the European one is very good, the British, the Canadian, the French, and Japanese, and so on. And they look at all those models and all the data and they produce their own forecast, which will be slightly different from the one the US National Weather Service produces, but not that much different they. And so you know, whether coms might be a little bit better than somebody else’s. But the private sector is doing its work on top of a huge government funded effort that’s in the public interest, and that no private company is going to do because it’s very, very expensive to do all that. And there’s no way to make enough money to recoup all that investment. So the federal government does it because it’s in everybody’s interest to do it. And then everybody else benefits from that. And that’s how the system works in the US. And I should say, for the most part internationally. And so you know, there was some code, I don’t remember the who this was, but a few years ago, there was some congressional hearing about funding the weather services, something where some congressmen said, I don’t need the weather service, I have the weather channel. And that was just profoundly ignorant because because the weather channel couldn’t exist without the weather service, and they know it. And I mean, they’re fully I mean, people from Weather Channel would agree with this. This is not something I’m not attacking them. This is a statement that the private sector for the most part would endorse, I believe.

AW  26:53  Yes, when we turn to weather, it’s usually because it’s something extreme, and we need to get the information from some weatherman standing in a place where he or she should not be standing with the high winds and steady downpours. And I hope that we can have you on again, when there is a extreme weather event to kind of walk us through it. We try not to be too reactive here on Sea Change Radio, but it was it’s always a good chance to kind of get a snapshot of where things are in your field. Adam Sobel. Thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

AS Thank you very much for having me, Alex.

Narrator  27:46  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the new master sounds and Dr. John, check out our website at Sea Change That’s s e a change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.