Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Climate and Weather: Complete Reporting by the Media is Paramount

In recent weeks, several articles have been published that reignite the anthropogenic (man made) Global Warming debate.  Several surveys including one on climate knowledge to lists of scientists who are considered skeptics have made their way online. At roughly the same time, a new website was launched that aims to list all television meteorologists who have made their opinions public against Anthropogenic Global Warming. All of this has run congruent to the abnormally mild winter we've experienced in Cleveland and across most of the US.  

People have started asking me again what I think of these articles and what my stance is on global warming/climate change. While I purposefully steer clear of this polarizing debate, I always try to give answers that describe the meteorological drivers of our weather patterns. Often time after explaining this year's pattern, I quickly get blank stares when I describe the arctic and its behavior this winter even without using fancy science terminology. By no means is this a way of tap-dancing around the question but rather an opportunity to present additional information that might not be known in a comfortable, conversational setting.

Most people don't want to be “taught" subject matter when watching a news program. Viewers become uneasy when the news feels more like school than an informative telecast. Most people cringe at science even more. They want their news simple and easy to understand. Unfortunately, the world of atmospheric science—science in general--is anything but simple. I’ve found that the general public knows the terms "El Nino" or "La Nina" but little else.

How do we combat this lack of basic weather/climate science knowledge?  The answer is easy. Educate your viewers with reporting the COMPLETE story. Yet most media outlets won’t and don’t do it. Why?

As a television meteorologist, you are taught to “know your viewers”. So we have to cater our weather casts to fit what viewers are comfortable with. Most don’t want to know “why is this happening”. They want the “whens” and “how much”. This makes sense. Weather impacts every aspect of their lives in the short term. 

Viewers are impatient. They want quick, “to-the-point” news and weather. Unfortunately, when a major weather events occurs, the media explains the events in a highly, over simplified manner to fit what viewers are used to during ordinary forecast segments. Key elements are either watered down or left out entirely. The “dumbing” down of weather and climate science stories into "easy-to-digest“ bullet points only perpetuates weather and climate science as simple disciplines and fails to accurately AND COMPLETELY present the reasons why our weather and weather patterns behave the way they do. I'm not advocating long, drawn out, convoluted television "seminars" devoted to weather and science just more complete reporting.  Reporters still need to do their due diligence by researching the drivers of these events and include them in stories before defaulting to the "Its Global Warming or Cooling" card. Worst of all, it wouldn't take long to find.  

Here are some examples:

  1. Alabama Tornado Outbreak

The Xenia tornado outbreak in 1974 was also during a La Nina. The link above shows that there may be a link to tornado outbreaks and La Nina episodes in early spring.

2. New York Hurricanes - Irene in 2011 et all

East coast landfall hurricanes occur more when the Atlantic is in its "warm mode". This mode is called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. Hurricane Irene last year tracked north into New England.

Back in 1938, a category 3 hurricane made landfall near Bellport, New York. The Atlantic was also in its warm mode.

 Historic east coast landfalls compared to the state of the AMO

3. Drought in Texas

Another extreme associated with La Nina. 20 La Nina events over the last 120 years. 19 of those resulted in below normal precipitation in Texas. Look back at 1918 and 1956. Major drought centered in Texas from the Great Plains occurred during a La Nina.

 How about 2011?

For comparison sake, here is the dust bowl drought of 1934

4. Alaska extreme cold

The long term Pacific Ocean cold pattern called the PDO (Pacific Multidecadal Oscillation) has been linked to colder than normal temperature regimes. This study outlines the PDO and other influences like El Nino and La Nina

Here are the January 1971 average temps along the side January 2012 average temperatures. Both of these months occurred during a negative PDO.

The PDO isn’t the only driver but the comparisons are significant. Some links between the cold PDO and the western trough along the west coast reinforcing the ridge which set the stage for the above normal temperatures during the summer of 2011

5. Mild winter across the eastern 2/3 of the US

The Arctic Oscillation and North Atlantic Oscillation has been strongly positive. (NWS Chicago has an excellent write up here.

The last two winters, these indices have been strongly negative. One PhD in atmospheric science recently told me that these oscillations are "stochastic processes".  In other words, they are random pattern shifts that the computer models have a tough time predicting.

My previous blog post on the winter pattern so far

Is this over simplification in weather/climate science reporting more a reflection of today’s impatient,      “Youtube-ified” society?  Probably. Television news is far different than it was 15 or 20 years ago. News is not a ½ hour event like the good old days. News is produced in smaller increments to fit our fast paced lives.  Mobile devices and other information gathering technology further reinforces the need for quick, one to two minute news bits.  But when it comes to complex science topics like weather and climate reporting, this format doesn’t work nor should we force science into this highly compact template.  Let me be clear on this. I am not against Climate Change reporting.  My intention is not to debate climate change. I'm not here to analyze temperature data or to follow the political money trail. I just want COMPLETE REPORTING that isn’t watered down.  

Allow me to get a bit defensive: If someone wants to label me as a member of one of the climate groups that’s routinely talked about as either pro or anti-AGW, go ahead. If you do than you are missing my point entirely. My goal isn't to refute arguments for or against.

My goal of this post is to emphasize better quality and COMPLETE science reporting on weather and climate related stories through some basic research by the media. We serve our viewers better if we abandon the practice of watering down weather/climate science stories and explain the short-term drivers of weather events/trends within the AGW context. Does this mean that we shouldn’t explain AGW? Absolutely not. Yet continual pointing at AGW as the ONLY first order mechanism in the place of other drivers easily obtained through basic research by reporters through credible sources (NWS, NOAA or NCEP) doesn’t do the science or the journalism justice.

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