The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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On Noticing Experts

A single cartoon panel of well-drawn stick figures. There are two scruffy-looking men sitting at computers. One wears a party hat and has a party favor noise-maker in his mouth. Confetti is falling around them. At the top is text reading "But 2005s wouldnt end until Zeta did." Then more text, apparently being written by one of the men, describing the current state of a storm named Zeta.

Excerpt of XKCD, by Randall Monroe https://xkcd.com/1126/ Note that this is a guess at what New Years Eve at the National Hurricane Center looked like in 2005.

 It’s hard to overlook the weather, but weather forecasters are another matter.

Consider the time my husband and I had to take shelter in the guest bathroom–we’d gotten a warning of a possible tornado (my husband is a firefighter/EMT, and his pager also does emergency alerts). Besides our pets and my laptop (I have unfinished novels on there I really don’t want flung off into the Land of Oz) we brought only one more item in with us—the cell-phone. We needed the cell so we could get online and find out when it was safe to come out. I have a vague memory that we were not watching an automatic builtin, that there was a human being in evidence discussing whether or not the warning would be allowed to expire, but neither of us can remember who that person was.

The one person we needed to hear from while huddled with our pets in the bathroom in the middle of the night was a meteorologist, and we don’t remember who it was.

(Was there a tornado? We don’t know. We heard a very odd noise from off to our west, and later we learned of some odd damage in that direction, too. But no tornado in our area was mentioned the next day on the news. I sent in our observation, but I don’t know if the message was received. Anyway, yes, we’re OK, thank you)

Of course, weatherpeople are journalists, and journalists don’t usually draw attention to themselves—the idea is to focus on the message, not the messenger. But when people do good and necessary work on our behalf, it’s important to notice.

For Example….

A photograph of a white man with gray hair wearing a blue sweater and holding a very small brown dog, some kind of terrier. Man and dog both look at the camera. The man is smiling at the camera. They are seated in what could be the living room of a well-decorated house, though its hard to be sure.

Dan Satterfield and his little friend, Riley.

Consider our local weatherman, Dan Satterfield.

He is currently Chief Meteorologist for WBOC TV, in Salisbury, Maryland, though he has also served elsewhere in the course of his almost 40-year career. While I can’t be sure it wasn’t him we were listening to on the cell that night, I have learned to notice him. He is, in a word, good.

I appreciate that he sometimes explains his judgment calls on air—I like learning a little of what goes in to making those predictions. He takes the time to explain odd things that turn up on the radar images (big flocks of migrating birds!), too. People send in photos of weird clouds and he spends a good minute happily geeking out on camera. When pointing out an unusually high temperature in the Southwest, he’s been known to comment “Today would not be a good day to be standing on the corner of Winslow, Arizona.”

Of course, what really got my attention is that he sometimes mentions climate change on air. Not a lot of people do.

The great thing about having a blog, I realized the other week, is that if there’s a public figure I want to ask a couple of questions of, I have a legitimate excuse.

The Interview

The “interview” consisted entirely of emailed questions and answers. This being the Era of Covid-19, there was no question of meeting in person, and communicating in writing does simplify note-taking.

I’ve changed the order of the questions and interjected with a comment in places, but the quotes from Mr. Satterfield have not been edited.

How and why did you get into meteorology?

I loved weather from the time I can remember, but seeing a tornado on June 8,1974 in Oklahoma City was the thing that solidified it. Before that I had gotten a weather kit for Christmas and I wore it out! Over the years, my friends who are meteorologists all have similar stories. We seem to have been born with the love of the sky. At university I learned a love of the maths and physics that describe how it all works.

My ecologist friends probably all have equivalent stories, too. I wonder if all branches of science are rooted in love? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Three cartoon panels drawn in a very simple, but well-executed style--they are stick-figures, but with good representation of proportion and balance. The first panel shows a man and a woman, both in lab coats and carrying microscopes and similar instruments, running by, screaming. A man and a little girl calmly watch them go by. The girl is eating an ice cream cone. In the middle panel, we see a large shark hanging from what might be a weather balloon, going by, apparently chasing the lab-coated people. The words "chomp chomp" are written next to the shark, so apparently it is snaping its jaws at it goes. The man and girl watch this without comment. In the third panel, the girl turns to the man and says "Daddy?" He responds "yes?" She replies "I want to be a scientist."

Excerpt from XKCD, by Randall Monroe, https://xkcd.com/585/

Also, yes, that last sentence of his is British usage. Mr. Satterfield talks like an American, but evidently writes like a Brit. On the About page of his blog, he even admits that London is his “favourite” non-Arctic place. He doesn’t explain the discrepancy, but someone who sees a tornado and goes “yes! more of that please!” doesn’t really have to explain himself, does he?

Does studying weather give you insight into climate? If so, can you give examples?

Meteorology and climatology are cousins. Climate is what you expect and weather is what you get! Understanding climate change though requires a good knowledge of atmospheric physics.

A single panel cartoom with well-drawn stick figures. A man is standing, talking to an older woman wearing glasses who is seated behind a desk with various knick-knacks on it. She looks offocial. He says "How can I pick a major? Im interested in everything. Cant I major in the universe?"

Excerpt from XKCD, by Randall Monroe https://xkcd.com/863/

Understanding the greenhouse effect requires an understanding of the Maxwell equations. There were things I had not been taught that I’ve had to learn, and a lot of statistics that I was not up to speed on as well. Meteorologists have the basics to understand climatology but it is a separate field and I often have to ask questions of my climate scientists friends. Climate change is really fascinating though, and I have friends who went back and did a masters in climate. I did a masters in Earth Sci. because I love all of the subjects from Geology to Astronomy! If I could live three lives, I’d do one as a geologist and one as an astronomer, besides this one!

Ah, love again! As for a multiplicity of interests, as an undergrad, I studied a mix of environmental science and psychology for a similar reason.

Given that everybody starts out knowing nothing, and some people grow up to trust the expertise of scientists and the validity of the scientific process while others don’t, how did you end up in the first category? Why didn’t you grow up to be a climate denier?

I didn’t grow up to be a climate denier because I was lucky enough to have a good science education. An education that taught me critical thinking skills and an understanding of how science works.

Scientists are (and should be) naturally skeptical, and I was certainly skeptical about the science of climate change at the beginning. I knew how difficult it was to model the atmosphere and I had real doubts about the climate models that forecasted such dramatic warming. When, I started asking questions at conferences and looked more deeply at it, I soon saw the flaw in my early ideas.

This lead me to dive even more deeply into the subject. Climatology and Meteorology are cousins, but I needed to learn more. I knew not to pay attention to the junk science on the internet, so I looked at the published papers, and it became obvious that the science was absolutely overwhelming. I was embarrassed for some of my fellow broadcast meteorologists who were publicly repeating things that were just not true.

Let me jump in here and say this part is crucial. The question was part of a larger train of thought that has also emerged on this blog here and here and here, but usually when people talk about the value of science education what they seem to be talking about is content–being told that climate change exists, for example. Seen that way, science resembles a dogma or an orthodoxy. How do you decide whose orthodoxy to believe? But that’s not what science is, and that’s not what Mr. Satterfield meant–his good science education did not include climate change, after all. Instead, it equipped him with the means to identify the topic as one worthy of a closer look, and the means to identify reliable sources of information. Science isn’t a set of answers–it is a way to ask questions.

OK, back to the interview.

It was about this time that I decided to create a blog and a facebook page. Someone needed to step up and point out what the science was saying, and why the myths floating around social media were wrong.

I was not alone, several of my friends who worked in other cities did the same. Jim Gandy in Columbia, SC, John Morales in Miami, Paul Gross in Detroit. Many of us were in areas that were hot beds of climate denial, but we did it anyway. We had the science on our side, so I knew we would be right in the end.

I did get some flack from viewers but I was prepared for it. I still do from time to time but those who think it’s a hoax are members of a rapidly dwindling group. They are looked at no differently than other conspiracy theory believers.

A broadcast meteorologist like me is for many the only person with a science background the average person sees on a daily basis. It is very important to me that I give them good information and correct bad information that may be out there.

You make a point of talking about science not politics, but you do cover science topics that have political import, and you’re clearly not afraid to call out idiots and liars on occasion. So how do you handle the risk that you might be accused of political bias?

If I’m going to communicate science then I must do it even when it is politically unpopular. That is likely when it’s MOST important. Not covering something because it will make my viewers mad or I will lose followers is not ethical journalism. I wear two hats in my job and I must follow the ethics of both fields. I can tell you there are a lot of broadcast meteorologists who have chosen the other way. There are stations who even forbid their meteorologists from talking about climate change. This is without doubt journalistic malpractice and may very well be a form of yellow journalism.

What we do about climate change is a policy question. The threat and how serious it is to those of us who live on this planet is the science question. I try hard to stay in that realm. Sometimes it is hard though. The incident with the hurricane and the NWS office in Birmingham was BOTH political and science based. There was no doubt that the NWS was right, and it was absolutely fair game. I wrote about it on my blog and posted on Facebook and Twitter about it, and received a few rather ugly comments.

Here is the relevant post, by the way, the one explaining the incident with the hurricane. And if you want to know where my “clearly not afraid to call out idiots and liars” comes from, click here. It’s quite refreshing.

Does the fact that you’re talking to Delmarva influence how you present information? For example, the region tends to be politically conservative, and certain anti-scientific biases tend to skew conservative while others skew liberal. Do you keep the specificity of your audience in mind? Why/why not?

The political beliefs of my audience play no role in what I post and never will. If a lot of folks believe something that is not true, I will likely cover it.

I actually have a broad audience on my blog and on my Facebook/Twitter. That said, many are from here on Delmarva and many from where I worked in North Alabama. When I created my blog and my Facebook page, I made a conscious decision that they would be mainly about Earth Science. If what I posted about was politically unpopular, then so be it. Science is science, but I am careful to get it right. The very fact that I had to worry about this is evidence of the need for good science communication.

Three cartoon panels with crudely-drawn stick figures, a long-haired girl talking to a shorter-haired woman. In the first panel, the girl raises her arms emphatically and says "But he believes the silliest things!" In the second panel, the woman replies "The universe doesnt care what you believe. The wonderful thing about science is it doesnt ask for your faith, it only asks for your eyes." In the third panel, the girl says "But hes a US Senetor!" and the woman replies "Ah, then yes, we do have a bit of a situation."

Excerpt from XKCD by Randall Monroe https://xkcd.com/154/

Over the years, I have talked about climate change, evolution, vaccines, and many other subjects. I will not ignore a subject because it may be unpopular. If anything, those are subjects that cry out for some solid science. I have received hate mail for saying a rock is 200 million years old from someone who insisted it was 6,000. That is not going to stop me from talking about geology or the age of the Universe.

When a guy came to Huntsville trying to sell a device that would get people 100 miles to the gallon by making hydrogen from a tank of water in their trunk, I called it out on-air, and got a ton of hate mail too! I pointed out that this violated the second law of thermodynamics, but the emails and letters kept coming in. They almost all told me to “stick to the weather”.

Recently I have posted a lot about Covid19. I know little about the subject of virology but I do know how to gather information from those who do. It is vital that the public gets reliable information on this disease and believe me there is a LOT of crazy floating around online. It’s fair game therefore.

When I post something that conflicts with someones worldview, I often get irate responses, but that just tells me that this information is important to put out there. I think there has never been a more important time to communicate good science. We actually have people who doubt germ theory and think the Earth is flat. These are indeed scary times.

These are scary times, yes. But I find it interesting to compare Mr. Satterfield’s approach to that of a number of authors, notably Sarah Jaquette Ray, whose book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, I reviewed some weeks ago. These people advocate a more persuasive, more emotional approach, citing evidence that facts and figures do not convince climate deniers and may actually be counter-productive. I don’t doubt the relevance of such evidence–humans are notoriously irrational creatures at times–and I’m happy to harness the power of psychology to craft better communication. But it’s a mistake to take these ideas further, as some do, and blame sciency science communicators (and stridently active activists) for creating climate denial. It’s as if they spotted someone paddling madly upstream and shouted “you’re getting nowhere–you must be paddling too hard!” We can’t forget that we have adversaries.

The other reason “stop being so sciency” is a mistake is that I have anecdotal evidence that simply providing information can work.

Some years ago, back when I had a job that included explaining natural history to the public in person instead of only in writing, I fell to talking with an older woman near the shore of a pond in Vermont. She asked me several questions about the behavior of the local beavers–she’d noticed water-level fluctuations, signs of feeding activity, that sort of thing–and since I’d recently re-read a favorite book that had a chapter on beavers, I more or less recited the relevant chapter for her. After chatting about beavers with me for a while she paused, looked at me, and asked “do you believe in climate change?”

Because I had shown myself a reliable source of information, she believed me when I told her climate change is real.

May his audience believe Dan Satterfield.

Why I Asked for the Interview

OK, I admit that when I asked for the interview, I didn’t know why. I had an impulse, and I followed it. But I’ve noticed that certain of my impulses tend to be wise–there is indeed a very good reason, I just don’t know what it is, yet.

In this case, I started to get a glimmer of the reason for the interview only when I wrote the introductory paragraphs. It took me a while to hit on the right framing, but when I typed out when people do good and necessary work on our behalf, it’s important to notice, the lightbulb went off.

Because yes, it’s important to notice people in general, that’s part of being human to each other, but it is particularly important to notice experts doing a good job–so that they can keep doing it.

I think Mr. Satterfield’s job is more than secure. He has an actual fan base. But as he points out, there are people unwilling to take the risks he does, and there are places unwilling to employ the risky. If, say, some little TV station somewhere quietly decided to replace a principled and intellectually passionate meteorologist with one who was less so, would there be an outcry?

What about other kinds of experts who unobtrusively make the world work? Like, what about whoever’s giving medical advice to my state’s governor during the pandemic? What about the people who give teeth to our remaining environmental regulations by denying permits? What about the whole staff one of the few remaining locally-owned independent newspapers?

The point is there are these experts we depend on, and some of them are vulnerable. We don’t live in an age particularly friendly to expertise. Even those who don’t have political problems can easily fall victim to budget cuts, to the pressure to get everything done cheaply never mind the cost. We need to get in the habit of paying attention to, and finding out about these folks. That way, if they vanish or get muzzled somehow, we’ll be able to say something.

Start by noticing who is talking about tornadoes in the middle of the night in the guest bathroom.


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Moving Landmarks

I have spent the past weekend traveling—a few days in southern New Hampshire, and now in coastal Maine. I have been experiencing weather and, by extension, climate not normally my own.

Of New Hampshire….

The Ashuelot River looked like an overfilled bathtub. The swimming beach at the nearby Swanzey Lake (which is more properly a pond) looked as though the tide had come in. Puddles escaped out of ditches and inched across trails. Everywhere throughout that part of New Hampshire was water, water, and more water. I used to live thereabouts, which is how I recognized the water level as unusual, but I have seen the rivers high before. The odd thing is that when the Ashuelot runs high, it usually turns a chocolate-milk color with eroded sediment. Most rivers, in my experience, do.

This time the river ran dark, its standard low-water color.

The paradoxical color told me that the high water wasn’t the result of rapid storm runnoff but of the slow, even seepage of the water-table, the low-water pattern of movement transposed to a much wetter version of the landscape.

Indeed, friends reported that it had started raining back in November and more or less never stopped, although the air was dry during our visit. One said she’d heard that although the rain has been deeply and dramatically unusual, the water-table is actually normal, now. So many years of drought had actually dried out the land so much that it took a six-month-long flood to make up the difference.

But if the water table is normal, is the high river and everything else likewise? Was the Keene area as I knew it always warped by drought?

Of Maine….

Here on the coast, now, the story is cold. The neighbor who brought his child to see our dogs told us he couldn’t work this spring—he digs clams, and otherwise harvests the sea—because until recently the harbors were frozen. This was the first week of the season temperatures rose above sixty degrees. Everybody’s talking about the cold, late spring.

My question is—is the spring really cold and late? Or is it a version of normal we haven’t seen in a while?

Of Normality….

I don’t know whether the wet and dry of New Hampshire or the cold and warm of Maine are especially symptomatic of climate change, but this uncertainty regarding normality certainly is.

Emotionally speaking, we recognize climate change is a sickening, frightening abnormality. The heat wave in January, the drought that eats whole reservoirs, the hurricane making landfall where no hurricane should be. But to recognize the abnormal, one must have a feel for the normal, and “normal” has been a moving target for decades, now.

It’s not unusual for winters warmer than the historical average to feel cold and long and hard because recent winters have all been warmer yet.

When your landmarks are moving, how can you be sure where you are?


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A Fiction Interlude

Here is another excerpt from a novel I’m working on. It’s set in the future, so you may notice some oddities, such as the narrator not being sure the readers know what dimes are, but it can basically stand on its own.-C.

As I’ve said, the main building sat—or, I suppose, still sits—on a bit of a hill, so that while the main entrance is at ground level, the back door of the same floor opened onto a second-story balcony. This same geography required that what was basement on one side of the building was a ground floor, complete with windows, on the other. The underground portion of the basement was divided into a utility room, a laundry room, and the school’s large root cellar. You need a large root cellar to feed two hundred-some people through a Vermont winter. The front portion, with the windows, was a long, narrow space that serves both as student lounge and library.

There is no librarian, or, rather, the school’s librarian (her name was Adrianne) had no desk or station within the library. To check out a book, you wrote your name and the book’s name down on a clipboard by the door, and if the book wasn’t back by the time she re-shelved on Sunday, she’d charge you. Everything else about the library was on the honor system. You could eat lunch in there while reading, and some people did.

Besides books and the student computers and printers, that long, low, cool room contained chairs and sofas and a pool table with an optional table tennis top, and plenty of ash trays and fire safety notices, because the staff had long ago seen the futility of trying to prevent students from smoking pot in there. Two large jugs of water stood always full, so that if you brought your own mug you needn’t fear going thirsty while you did your homework, but all other refreshments were strictly bring-your-own. Sometime in my first year I had picked up the habit of reading or writing or daydreaming in the chair second-closest to the door, and by the time the beginning of my second fall trimester rolled around, I thought of that chair and the space immediately around it as my office.

Which is all a way of leading up to the fact that in mid-September, who should step into my “office,” but Saul.

I hadn’t seen him in the better part of a year. I jumped up from my chair, and he saw me and gave me a smile of surprised pleasure. Of course, he hadn’t known that corner of the library had become my primary haunt. He gathered me into one of his wonderful hugs and I had the irrational sense of being glad to be home—as though I, and not Saul, had returned from somewhere.

“I didn’t know you were back,” I told him, when we disengaged. We each sat down, he flopping into the chair by the door with the relief of the exhausted. The day was dangerously hot out, the dim library a cool refuge, and I took the liberty of lifting his mug from his hand and filling it with water.

“Thank you,” he said, and took a long drink. “I only just got here.”

“Didn’t you get back earlier last year?”

“Yeah. Last year some things fell through so I just came back early.” He took another long drink and leaned back against the wall behind his chair. “Jeez, it did not used to get so hot in New England.”

He was still in his traveling clothes, a light-weight kilt and a short-sleeved, collared cotton shirt that would have been stylish had it not been sweat-stained. He had the top of the shirt unbuttoned, and I could see a little gold medallion, smaller than a dime, if you’ve ever seen a dime, hanging from a thin, gold chain amid the black curls of his chest hair. I found out later that the medallion bore the image of a butterfly, and that he never took it off, though he never wore it outside his shirt where people could see it, either. He took off his hat and sighed the sigh of the overheated.

“They say it’s an advantage in the winter, though,” I offered.

“If you like ice storms, sure,” he replied, and lifted his head to look at me. “Cold. We could deal with the cold. We knew how. What we have now are rapid freeze/thaw cycles all winter long. That’s why we’ve lost the paper birches and, ironically, why we’re losing some of the southern orchard species, too. How many years is it we haven’t had a decent peach? God. God damn those idiots all to hell. This is a different world, now, and a poorer one. They could have prevented this, but they didn’t.”

“I know you’re right,” I told him, “but the climate doesn’t seem that different to me. I mean, I’m young, but I’m not that young. I remember Before.”

“Oh, it’s different, trust me. Even in the…how old are you?”

“Nineteen.”

“In the past nineteen years, there have been a lot of changes. But people don’t notice, or they don’t notice that they notice. There’s a hot day, but people don’t put it in context because they don’t expect there to be a context. Actually, I think that’s part of the reason to tell stories.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. A narrative frame allows people to put what they experience in context, tells them what is significant and how, what to pay attention to, what to remember. We are living the story of global warming. And you and I know how to follow the plot.”

“So, that’s storytelling as reminder, again,” I ventured, thinking back to our conversation about what seanachis do. “The story affirms what is significant, tells people that certain experiences are real and worth caring about?” I was thinking of all the Yom Kippurs I hadn’t even noticed over the years, because Alicia didn’t think they were worth noticing. Hearing a maggid or two preach in the market some year would have helped, but of course there were none.

Saul looked at me, thoughtfully, and declared that I had a point.


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How Normal Is this Abnormality?

Ok, I was going to write about politics or something this week, because we all know climate change causes extreme weather already so why should I have to write the same post about floods and droughts over and over and over and over again, but really? Baton Rouge? There’s a time and a place for just acknowledging what’s going on because people are dying down there. One area resident, who also happens to be the Louisiana state climatologist, told Scientific American (see previous link) the scale of devastation was like that of Hurricane Katrina and that “This is a pretty big deal, many, many, many homes flooded; it is hard to capture that in any one scope of a camera. It’s worse than it appears on television.”

So, however bad it looks to us from the outside? It’s worse than that. We’re going to be coping with the effects of this storm, as a nation, for years.

Again, according to Scientific American (same link!), this specific event can’t be linked to climate change, but extreme weather in general, including flooding, is a sign of climate change. That’s the standard story, and I’ve told it before. But I don’t actually think it’s true anymore. Not in this case, anyway.

The thing is, the reason this storm has been so achingly, awfully bad is that a high pressure zone sat itself down on the East Coast and refused to move, so, therefore, this storm full of Gulf Coast moisture had nowhere to go and just dumped all of its water right there on Louisiana (same link again!). And the thing is, I’ve heard that before.

It seems like every severe weather story I hear lately is the direct result of a blocking high.

So, I went looking around on the internet for a while, trying this search term and that, and finally found an article explaining that yes, stationary high pressure zones, caused by an erratic jet stream ARE the major proximate cause of many different types of extreme weather and, yes, these highs ARE getting more frequent. Because of climate change. Granted, the author was talking about winter extremes, but I see to reason to suppose the same mechanism might not work in the summer, too. The exact mechanism for the more erratic jet stream is still being debated, but seems to have something to do with the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than the lower latitudes are.

So, why did it take me twenty minutes online to find information Scientific American said didn’t exist? I don’t suggest a conspiracy–we’re probably looking at the result of a legitimate editorial decision about how much detail to get into for a popular market article. Also, what, exactly, it means to say a weather event was or was not caused by climate is a bit philosophically murky, anyway.

In the meantime, there are also various droughts (if you click on that link more than a week after I post this you won’t see the information I used, but rather the new, updated drought map. I wish I knew a way around that, but I have bigger fish to fry at the moment).  Some of these droughts are garden-variety, others are severe and unprecedented. California continues to just plain dry up. It’s horrible. Part of Massachusetts are in an Extreme Drought for the first time since the category came into existence (in 1999, but still!). There are other examples. But I’m unable to find out if any of this, except California, are really unusual. Is the US having bizarre weather at the moment?

It’s an important question. Somewhere the weather is always extreme. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it must be nearly so. It’s a big planet, and a couple of extremes somewhere at any given time is about what you’d expect. Put another way, a certain amount of abnormality is normal. So, if we’re going to talk about evidence of climate change seriously, it’s not enough to just see what extreme weather is making the news lately–we have to know if the extremes we’re seeing are themselves unusual in some way.

It’s like temperature.  It’s easy to notice that it’s hot today, but to know what that heat means, you’ve got to look at it in context–is today’s high above or below the average for your area at this time of the year? 80° F. is just not that impressive in Delaware in August, for example, even if you, personally, are over-heated. Human perceptions of “normal” are easy to fool. So, are we looking at a normal level of abnormality this week or not?

I haven’t been able to find out. Really, what I’m looking for is an extreme weather index, a site that keeps track of, perhaps, the number of weather records broken this week or the number of events labeled “extreme,” and color-codes each part of the country according to whether that number is typical or not. And there is something like that–the Climate Extremes Index, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Except it hasn’t been updated since July of 2015.

This is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration we’re talking about. You’d think they’d be on this sort of thing.

Maybe the up-to-date website I want is out there somewhere and I just don’t have the right search term yet or something. I’m not saying the information doesn’t exist, only that it’s disappointingly hard to find. It’s not on the tip of my search engine. That tells me most people aren’t asking the question.

And that is scary.


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How About that Weather?

Recently, a friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page, commenting that he “didn’t know it was that bad.” I didn’t, either, though I did suspect it, and it does not seem to have made the news at all. I’m talking drought figures. Frankly, I am confused by the legality of re-posting pictures online, so I usually don’t. In the interests of avoiding a thousand extra words I’m making an exception and providing the picture. Please, if you own this one and don’t want it here, let me know and I’ll take it down.

 

The legend at the top indicates this is a map of how many more inches of precipitation different parts of the United States would need to get to “PDI -0.5.” A bit of poking around online reveals that PDI is probably the same thing as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI, and that -.5 means is more or less the drier boundary of normal for a given area. According to this map, then, as of June 6th, to get to Normal, parts of California would need 9-12 inches of rain, which is a problem because that’s about as much as what that area gets all year.

But we knew California was in trouble. That’s not the surprising part.

The surprising part is the serious drought in the East. Southern Florida apparently needs 12 to 15 inches of rain to get to normal, parts of Vermont, and some parts of the Southern Appalachians need 6 to 9 inches. Where I live, in Maryland, needs up to 3 inches, which might not sound like a lot, but we did just get a solid week of rain. Much of the rest of the East is at least mildly dry. It’s not that any of this is severe (Florida is very rainy, so a proportionately mild or moderate deficit still has a lot of inches), it’s that people act like it’s invisible. I have heard no mention of it on the news, heard nobody (except the friend who posted the picture) talking about it, and I have not found anything discussing any of this online.

According to another graphic on the same site, much of the Eastern US has gotten about half to three-quarters of its normal amount of rainfall so far this year. Another site, one run by the USDA, lists Maryland as having no drought as of June 2nd, with some areas merely “abnormally dry” the week before. The disparity could be due to the use of different methods–calculating the severity of drought is somewhat complicated, since it depends on knowing not only how much moisture a place has but also how much it needs. The dates on the two sites (June 2nd vs. June 6th) could also be relevant.

Personally, I’d go with the site that says Maryland has a bit of an issue. It has been a dry spring. with some parts of the state (like ours) getting no rain at all for weeks on end in April and May. We have also had some fantastic rainstorms, most recently a series of interrelated storms that lasted almost a solid week, but much of that water probably ran off without soaking in–heavy rains on dry soil tend to slide off. I spoke with a farmer who said her neighbor found completely dry soil just a few inches down after the first big downpour of that rainy week.

Which brings up another reason why the reports of Maryland’s drought could be wrong–measured by actual inches of rain as compared to what we typically receive, we could be ok. Measured by soil moisture and groundwater recharge, we might not be; the thing is, Maryland currently has no effective way of checking whether its groundwater is being recharged.

All of this is, of course, weather rather than climate. And in the grand scheme of things, my state’s drought is, at worst, still mild. But the situation is still worth noting for two reasons. One is that this is what climate change looks like–larger, more intense rainfalls less often. It’s not dramatic for us Easterners this week, but it is vaguely, eerily, different from what we’re used to, and we should notice. More importantly, a society that isn’t in the habit of noticing the weather, either as individuals or through the news media, leaves itself vulnerable to being told lies. Like when pretty much everybody except the Eastern US was horribly hot last winter and various climate-denying wags asked “where’s global warming” because the East happened to be snowy.

Personal, casual observation of the weather is not, of course, a reliable measure of climate, that’s why we have climate scientists and data collection protocols and big, giant computers, etc. There are important patterns that just aren’t visible without analysis. But if we abandon looking for those patterns we can see, the step into a dangerous apathy becomes very short.