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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/14/2010

Expert: Blizzards "consistent with" climate change

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As is often the case with extreme weather events, the recent record snows have sparked spirited discussions about global climate change. Some climate change skeptics, such as Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, seem to think the snow is evidence against manmade climate change. Most climate scientists think otherwise, however.

The debate is playing out in the press, making the front page of the New York Times on Thursday, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, among other outlets.

I contacted Jeff Masters, who is the director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, for his perspective. Masters has a Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology from the University of Michigan, is a former "Hurricane Hunter," and is a prominent voice on extreme events and climate change.

Andrew Freedman: Earlier this week you wrote a blog post, "Heavy Snowfall in a Warming World," in which you argued that major snowstorms such as the ones that have repeatedly slammed the mid-Atlantic this winter may in fact be consistent with manmade climate change. This goes against a view propagated by some in the media and politics lately, which is that the snow and cold weather must be evidence *against* climate change, and therefore climate change isn't such a big deal anymore.

Here at CWG, many a commenter has speculated about whether the recent storms have anything to do with climate change. At the risk of repeating your previous article, what would your message be for them about the possible relationship between a warming climate overall, and record-breaking snowstorms in the mid-Atlantic region?

Jeff Masters: A 2006 study published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology found that 61-80% of all heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches in the contiguous U.S. between the years 1900-2001 occurred during winters with above-average temperatures. In other words, the old adage, "it's too cold to snow," has some truth to it. The authors also found that 61-85% of all heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches occurred during winters that were wetter than average. The authors conclude, "a future with wetter and warmer winters ... will bring more heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches than in 1901 - 2000."

Keep reading for the rest of the interview ...

The authors found that over the U.S. as a whole, there had been a slight but significant increase in heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches between 1901-2000. So, there is evidence that the climate of the U.S. over the past 100 years is colder than optimal for heavy snow events to occur. If the climate continues to warm, we should expect an increase in heavy snow events for a few decades, until the climate grows so warm that we pass the point where winter temperatures are at the optimum for heavy snow events. One good piece of news is that the very heaviest snowstorms -- extreme "top ten" snowstorms like the three record-breaking storms this winter in the mid-Atlantic -- thus far show no evidence of getting more frequent, at least between 1948-2001.

AF: A point I often hear from readers who are skeptical of manmade climate change is that, to them, it seems that those who emphasize the risk of climate change often claim that any extreme event, be it a heat wave, hurricane or blizzard, is connected to climate change in some way. It strikes them almost like meteorological profiteering, if you will, and seems odd to them that seemingly opposite weather phenomena (heat waves vs. blizzards) can be tied to climate change. Do you think that criticism has any merit to it from a scientific standpoint?

JM: There are some cases where extreme events are improperly blamed on climate change. For example, the number of violent (EF-4 and EF-5) tornadoes has not increased in recent decades, at least as far as our crude data on these can tell. Yet, sometimes I hear a violent tornado being blamed on climate change. For phenomena such as hurricanes, blizzards and heat waves, the best science that we have does predict that the dice are now loaded in favor of stronger such extreme events. A warmer world provides more energy for the strongest storms to get stronger, be they hurricanes or blizzards. When an unprecedented hurricane, blizzard or heat wave occurs, though, it should not be blamed on climate change, as no single weather event can be blamed on climate change. It is proper to say that such an occurrence "is consistent with what we expect to see from climate change," to draw attention to the very real risks that an increase in these extreme events will pose.
The effect of climate change on extreme events is just beginning to be apparent, and there is a high amount of natural variation, so it is controversial. It's also true that even though we expect the strongest storms to get stronger, it may be that the total number of storms will go down. The storms will also shift in their preferred paths, so the net damages will go down for some regions, and go up for others.
There is a high amount of uncertainty about how climate change will affect extreme events.

AF: What have been some of the reactions to your piece from your readers, as well as your peers in the meteorological community? As you know, weather forecasters as a group tend to be more skeptical of manmade climate change than those who specialize in climate change research.

JM: Well, it's been a mix. The people who tend to write me directly about climate change issues tend to be the ones who have made up their mind before hand, so their reactions are predictable.

AF: Lastly, on a different note... As a fellow climate science communicator, I'm curious to ask you this question: How big a credibility hit do you think climate science in general has taken in the U.S. as a result of "climategate" and other recent IPCC controversies? Do you have any suggestions on where science, and specifically the peer-review process, should go from here?

JM: I think the "climategate" affair and the recent attacks on the IPCC and the head of the IPCC have been very effective in making the general public mistrust climate scientists and the science they do. What I like to call the "Manufactured Doubt Industry" is extremely powerful, experienced, media savvy and well funded, and a bunch of disorganized scientists bent mainly on pursuing the truth really can't compete. Chris Mooney has some excellent suggestions in his new book, "Unscientific America," about encouraging scientists to learn more communication skills, engage in more public outreach, and become more involved with politicians and the media. Maybe I'll be inspired to write a Hollywood sceenplay with climate scientists as heroes.
In the end, it's probably going to take an obvious impending climate disaster to motivate meaningful action on climate change. It took the Antarctic ozone hole to motivate action to ban CFCs, and there will have to be something even more obvious and compelling to motivate action on CO2. Will a new record warmest year ever in 2010 do it? A record strength Arctic Dipole upsetting the usual weather patterns over the Northern Hemisphere, triggering sea ice melt all the way to the North Pole this summer? Both of these events are possible, but I doubt they would be sufficiently motivating.
I predict that when the Arctic ice cap is 90% gone is when we'll finally get serious about combating climate change. That will occur sometime between 2013-2030, according to several leading sea ice experts. The glaciers in Greenland should really speed up when that occurs, which should get people's attention.

The views expressed here are the author's and interview subject's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  11:00 AM ET, 02/14/2010

Categories:  Freedman, Freedman, Freedman, Freedman

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