It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Hill of Snow

Nine inches of snow in Dallas! (note: not real cattle)

Well, blizzards in DC are no big deal as far as we are concerned here, but blizzards in Texas, that's another matter. And with reports of a minute amount of snow sticking to the ground in Florida, we have what is really an unusual event: snow cover in every one of the contiguous states. (I spotted a tiny bit of frozen precipitation in Austin mixed in with the rain, but with my cowboy hat off and my Habs' tuque on, I wouldn't really have called it snow.)

So what are we to make of the snowpocalypse? Mark Morano very effectively makes hay out of it. Irritating though it is to see Climate Depot always featuring cold or snowy weather, Morano in this interview completely demolishes his opponent, who is bound and determined to make this huge snow event evidence "for", um, "climate change". Sneaking the last word in (over the rather pathetic whining of the interviewer) was a very effective little bit of norm-evasion on Morano's part.

(Hints to interviewer: get an off switch on the interviewee's audio channel. Use it. Don't whine on air.)

Of course, the usual lesson can be learned. Use trained media-ready people for media interviews, avoid debates with people who have sharper debating skills than you.

But there's another lesson here, too. Don't overreach. Is there anything in any particular weather event (except prehaps ones far more bizarre than this one) that offers strong evidence for or against any theory of climate change? Morano says no, despite constantly implying otherwise on his aggregator. His opponent (Daniel Weiss I believe) pretty much says yes, and Joe Romm does too.
  • Clarification: As several correspondents point out, Romm does not make such a claim explicitly. In fact, neither does Weiss. By "pretty much" I meant only that an unsophisticated audience member could come away with that impression. I should have said that, and no more. I apologize.
What do I say? I say Weiss and Romm have been tricked by Morano (have made a tactical error).
  • Clarification: I should not have "tricked by Morano". I don't think Romm's position is directly affected by what Morano says. And probably the tricking is inadvertent. We are in enough trouble already, though, without falling into rhetorical traps, and this "consistency" matter is one of them. That's my point.
I strongly advise against this tactic. Not every bit of weather weirdness is anthropogenically forced. A far better response, for example, is the first half of Rachel Maddow's. Unfortunately, she then gets the (in my opinion worthless) Bill Nye on to fall right into the trap.

So what's going on?

Well, when this year is different from last year, the best place to look is not in gradual climate change but in large natural shifts in climate. Of these, the prime candidate should always be the big one, the El Nino/La Nina cycle (known in the field by the inexcusable name ENSO which stands for "El Nino Southern Oscillation" which sacrifices both the oceanographers' poetry and the meteorologists' precision for mealy-mouthed and worthless compromise. But never mind that.) Anyway, Google being my friend, I asked it "noreaster el nino" and was promptly rewarded with the following abstract:

Lynne M. Hoppe, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD; and D. R. Smith

A significant wintertime event along the East Coast is a marine cyclone called the Nor'easter. These storms occur when cold air from the continent interacts with warm air and water just offshore, associated with the Gulf Stream. This paper investigates whether El Niño events have any influence on the development of such storms. This paper looks at winter storms for the 1983-84, 1997-98, and 2004-05 events. The number of extratropical cyclones, intensity of these cyclones and the central and minimum pressures of the cyclones were gathered. By comparing these data, conclusions were made regarding the generation and movement of Nor'easter storms. The storms during El Nino events were pushed further south due to the jet stream being pushed further south. The frequency of storms increased during strong El Niño years (e.g., 1983-'84 or 1997-'98). Although the is ability to predict when or where these storms will occur is difficult at best, this study provides clues to better understand the effect of El Niño on these extratropical marine cyclones.

extended abstract Extended Abstract (2.3M)

Okay, kids? Got that? Jet stream moves south, and more noreasters happen IN EL NINO CONDITIONS. The US is just going to be more snow-covered in El Nino conditions.

Then there's the question of whether more intense snowfalls are a likely result of a warming climate. Well, let's stick to the US again. Here we have the question of whether El Nino years will become more frequent and intense, for one thing, and whether various other contributing factors will become more favorable to noreasters for another.

Now one big argument is that there are signs of larger intense precipitation events. This is true.

One problem with this is that a snowfall is not an intense precipitation event. It's a prolonged precipitation event. The actual rate of water mass precipitation is not high. So this doesn't really fit in with the idea of less large scale organization and more intense small scale organization, which is what I understood the expectation from climate change to be, at all.

And, John Nielsen-Gammon makes a cogent argument that snow events in particular have a maximum intensity that is set more by very constant aspects of nature than by climate variables. I'm not sure it's a perfect argument (it may be moister tropical air riding up over the cold front) but it does make a certain amount of sense to me.

On the other hand, it is very much what we expect from El Nino events. So we should stop at saying "this is not inconsistent with expectations" rather than saying "we expect more of this sort of thing in the future" unless it's actually the sort of thing we expect more of. Which, in this case, it actually ain't, at least on present evidence.

Which brings up the quandary of the notorious concept of "consistency". And that's another can of worms.

But for now, when we are back on our heels under the force of our opponents' misrepresentation and innuendo, this is hardly the time to be making s**t up. We don't expect these big snowstorms in DC to go away forever for a while yet. Big snowstorms are not significant evidence against anthropogenic climate change (as apparently Morano knows, who'd have thought it?).

big snowstorms in the mid-Atlantic or the South, particularly in El Nino years, are not evidence in favor of anthropogenic climate change either. They are not the sort of thing we particularly expect more of because of human interference. At best it seems to me that the case is uncertain.

Okay? Okay then.

Update: I should point out that nobody I know of said "caused by". All were careful only to say "consistent with".

I'd like to make clear that I am not praising Morano in this piece. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I think Morano is skilled, but that doesn't mean he is using his skills in a decent or honorable way. I don't mind when Morano drives traffic here, but I have no expectation that we are friends and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if, given a suitable opportunity from his perspective, Morano would do me great harm for small gain.

I don't agree with Romm's approach to this particular matter, but as I've said before, in the grand scheme of things we are both working for the same things. Nothing in this piece should be taken as a condemnation of Joe Romm or an endorsement of Morano! I just think Joe is making a tactical mistake.

Dallas pic via Huffpo; an ordinary day in Montreal (false watercolor: Cote des Neiges in the snow; click image for 1000 pixel version) is my own. If you like my landscapes there are more at PECULIAR MO .


AMac said...

This post is a very cogent description of the meaning of our (Baltimore) recent weather with respect to climate.

Weather enthusiasts around here recognize that El Nino plays an important role in determining the frequency of Nor'easters (which are the big-news winter weather events).

Most of the time, Nor'easter means a mix of snow, sleet, freezing rain, and rain, typically ending as rain. Sometimes they are all-rain; this year, both have been all-snow. It only takes a couple of degrees.

The meaning of the snow/rain divide of two storms, as far as climate? Hard to see much.

Steve Bloom said...

Bob Grumbine seems to have a different view.

Penguindreams said...

Yes, with some qualifiers about regions, they are. See Changnon, S.A., D. Changnon, and T.R. Karl, 2006: Temporal and Spatial Characteristics of Snowstorms in the Contiguous United States.J. Appl. Meteor. Climatol., 45, 1141–1155. Wasn't paying attention to Texas, but DC is one of the regions that does indeed expect more severe snows.

Jeff Masters for the original (to me) note, to which I added for a note on my own blog.

Michael Tobis said...


That all seems quite equivocal to me.

The Chagnon article just tries to extract trends from a noisy record, and does not include the ENSO correlation. And the Masters article seems to jump from northward retreat of storms (which would take them away from the mid-Atlantic) with possibly more severity (and more lake effect snow in the midwest, which makes perfect sense to me) to supporting the idea that the likelihood or intensity of these storms is anthropogenically enhanced.

The Chagnon observations do not support a trend in the east or the northeast (figure 7) and figure 6 shows lake snows increasing and a perhaps noise-driven increase in the west, but if anything a decrease in synoptic scale blizzards in the east.

So I don't understand the appeal to Chagnon.

And the Masters note seems strange to me. He also talks about northward retreat, and more lake effect snows, and then somehow waves the noreasters into the picture. Again, I don't get it.

Anyway, as Nielsen-Gammon said, maybe. The suggested trend toward more noreasters isn't excluded. But it seems like a stretch to me. I don't see it in the data you point to and I don't see it in the theory of retreating jet streams. It's not a solid consensus view at present and in my opinion shouldn't be played as one.

To the extent that a dynamical explanation beyond bad luck is needed, ENSO provides it. So what is the point in walking into this?

It's interesting, by the way, to see the impressive positive anomaly of blizzards in the east and northeast during the "global cooling scare" which is smaller or absent in the other regions.

I think bringing Katrina etc. into climate debate was possibly justifiable as a "load the dice" argument, (I find the Srivers and Huber argument in favor of increased tropical activity in hot earths quite compelling) but the blizzards are not, not until someone comes up with a strong argument of how the dice are loaded.

In short, I stipulate that midlatitude storms will be wetter but I would think that the rain/snow line will move north; the balance of these forces is not obvious. This would not provide a compelling argument for the likelihood of the current snow across the middle south and mid-Atlantic. On the other hand, El Nino moves the snow line south, and would.

L. Carey said...

Michael, did you actually listen to the Jeff Masters / Joe Romm conference call that you linked to as an example of pushing claims that the record snow in DC is evidence of global warming? I did, and it sounded to me like they were both quite careful to focus on the argument that the snowstorms did not constitute evidence against climate change, while avoiding the assertion that the snow was could be attributed to climate change.

David B. Benson said...

it all just Pink Noise.

[Word verification states grand.]

Michael Tobis said...

I think I can make a case that Romm was talking about "a statistical increase in extreme weather" and implying the mid-Atlantic snows to be part of it.

Maybe this is a good occasion to get beyond the "weather is not climate" shibboleth and move on to what the relationship between weather and climate is. In particular the mysteries of persistence of large scale patterns beyond the obvious dynamical memory of the atmosphere. That in many locations we have winning streaks and losing streaks is clear. Why is not. And it's a very interesting scientific question.

Normally I would take Jeff Masters opinion over mine on matters of meteorlogy, but I find the article Bob links as peculiar.

Nobody has said anything substantively wrong, but the Bill Nyes of the world are interpreting what's being said as "global warming will cause this sort of thing", not "there's arguments both ways".

Mariss said...

The "warm air holds more moisture" argument has some problems here. It can't snow if it's warmer than 32F. The climatic Washington DC daily high is 36F for early February. It snowed. That means the air was at least 4F colder than normal.

Year after year of weather becomes climate. We have had 10 years of cool weather. When does it become climate?

Michael Tobis said...

Has DC had ten years of cool weather?

Surely you don't mean the globe, which, you know, hasn't.

David B. Benson said...

I was going to comment on the pink noise view of natural variability, but it seems more urgent to show off BPL's decadal average anomalies from the GISTEMP global temperature product:
1880s -0.25
1890s -0.26
1900s -0.27
1910s -0.28
1920s -0.16
1930s -0.03
1940s +0.04
1950s -0.02
1960s -0.01
1970s +0.00
1980s +0.18
1990s +0.32
2000s +0.51
Do note that the last 30 years were noticably warmer than the prior 30 and that the decade-upon-decade trend remains starkly upwards.

Glenn said...

The snowfall this winter does have implications for the credibility of global warming theory. For many years those who believe in global warming have been asserting that each year would, on average, be warmer than the last. This has led to many spectacularly wrong seasonal forecasts to be issued by believers in global warming, such as the U.K.'s Met Office. See:

Other believers in global warming have been telling us for several years that we would see unmistakable signs of warming in our everyday lives. Note this forecast from 2000 from Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, that within a few years winter snowfall will become "a very rare and exciting event".

Meanwhile AccuWeather's Joe Bastardi, a strong dis-believer of anthropogenic global warming, was right on target in predicting a cold and snowy winter in the East back in October. See:

Whose long-term climate forecasts do you want to believe - those who can get short-term predictions right or those who can't even predict out a few months at a time?

I am fully aware that there are many complexities in evaluating a theory such as global warming. I do not believe in it because I see it as scientifically flawed in many ways, irregardless of a given snowsorm in DC or anywhere else.

However, since proponents of the theory have for years been using all sorts of events as "evidence" of global warming (alleged increase in hurricanes, pine beetle infestations, the crash of Air France Flight 447, etc.) I am amused to see them now claim that a massive snowstorm in DC in February (where temperatures average above freezing this time of year) fully fits with global warming theory. If both more snow and the cold temperatures needed to produce snow and less snow and warmer temperatures all go along with global warming then the theory is one that cannot be falsified and is hence non-scientific.

Michael Tobis said...


" On this point I will only say that when angry feeling escapes from behind the intellect, where it may be useful as an urging force, and places itself athwart the intellect, it is liable to produce all manner of delusions. Thus my censors, for the most part, have levelled their remarks against positions which were never assumed, and against claims which were never made. "

- John Tyndall, 1881

Nobody has ever claimed that every year would be warmer than the last, and certainly not everywhere.

It happens that so far, this year is on track to being the warmest ever, so even on that score you have a problem.

The only source you quote as an example of excess is a newspaper article which neglects to define "few" years. What journalists say is (in some ways quite unfortunately) outside the control of scientists.

If the exaggerations and handwaving of that Independent article are put up against the same features of recent articles about the CRU emails, though, that article smells like a rose.

But basically your whole contribution is a strawman.

Glenn said...


It was a direct quote from climate "scientist" Viner that snowfall would become a rare and exciting event, not a journalist. Viner is further directly quoted as saying "Children just aren't going to know what snow is." Viner's imprecision as to when "a few" years is his, but the remark was made ten years ago. Bastardi's on-target prediction of this winter's weather was made last October and was specific to this winter. Again, Bastardi is no believer in global warming and he has an outstanding record of correct predictions.

You think Viner's ridiculous remarks are unusual for believers in global warming? Take a look at this humorous video of a few of the many absurd claims by believers in your cause:

You say this year is "on track" to being the warmest ever…after one month's data is in! Remember 2007 started out with a warm January, and then what happened? You called my post a "straw man" but you are clutching at straws.

Michael Tobis said...

Viner's comments were not associated with a year.

The journalist added the "soon". It is perfectly reasonable to expect that many places that get snow now will get considerably less in the future.

I wish we were "clutching at straws" but we aren't.

David B. Benson said...

Glen --- If you must have a touchy-feely, consider the state of the Winter Olympics going on just now.

Watching women's mogul in the rain?

EliRabett said...

Its gonna snow in DC tomorrow and its gonna be above freezing. The snow forms high up where it is colder. It probably will stick a bit on the already formed ice and snow

Glenn said...


As I said in my original post, I don't believe in global warming because I believe the science behind it is flawed. The snowstorm in DC has nothing to do with my views, nor does the current weather in Vancouver (close to seasonal averages).

I am more impressed by the implications of CO2 following rather than preceding temperature changes in the ice core data, grossly faulty approaches to computer modeling used by climate modelers, studies showing that solar effects on climate cannot be ignored, recent work undercutting the idea that CO2 creates positive feedback effects on other greenhouse gasses (necessary if CO2 is to cause harmful warming), and the now abundant documentation that the claims of recent warming have been based on faulty, even fraudulent data, to name but a few reservations I have about global warming theory.

However, it is interesting to see how some believers in global warming (but not M. Tobias) have tried to force fit an unusual winter storm in DC into being a result of "global warming" despite snow in DC at this time of year requiring lower than average temperatures.

Pangolin said...

So when the Romans in Pompei looked up at the mountain burping ash were they to stay put because it wasn't a statistical increase in volcanic activity? Sometimes outliers deserve attention. I'm with Joe on this one.

I would also add that a look at temperatures in southern greenland towns this winter have been abnormally....... warm.

South Greenland heatwave

This winter is the warmest in southern Greenland since official recordkeeping began in 1958

So much for global cooling.

David B. Benson said...

Geln --- Over the longer run, temperatures follow CO2 down as the CO2 is removed in weathering rocks to carbonates. But I don't suppose there is anything I can say to convince you to read "The Discovery of Global Warming" by Spencer Weart: