KSJ Tracker September 19, 2013

US Press: Tons of ink for Colorado floods. Far worse and maybe even weirder Mexico storms? Feh.

High water in Acapulco

   Last night the local Fox affiliate's nightly news (not to be confused with Fox News), well after its tiresome machinegun-quick snips on cheap crime and other sensational but efflugic events, ran a very short but different kind of segment, just before weather and sports. It mentioned how Hurricane Manuel was tearing hell out of northwestern Mexico, right on the heels of Tropical Storm Ingrid's hammer blow on the nation's Gulf side. Mexico is the filling in a cyclone sandwich. The results are ugly. The toll is 80 deaths and counting. This combo pummeling is pretty uncommon. Manuel's meandering path from sea to inland and then back out to reform at hurricane strength makes it doubly interesting. Crocodiles have washed into Acapulco! Mrs. Tracker turned to me and said, "Why didn't they lead with that? It's terrible down there." I told her it reflects a blind hyperlocalization of news. But her underlying point is a good one.

  To be sure, at outlets with a large perspective, Mexico's weather woes got decent coverage in this country. But it is nothing like the attention media here gave to that freaky traffic jam of moisture-laden air masses that just a week ago piled up near Boulder, Colorado. It  cut loose with downpours and floods so intense and prolonged that the National Weather Service pronounced them biblical. At least eight people died. It is no surprise that huge events in a foreign nation - even one nearby and birthplace or ancestral home to so many Americans - is a lower news priority.  But to this critic's mind and in light of our focus here on science journalism, Mexico's double-whammy is just as interesting as Colorado's brief immersion in the Noachian. The two events should attract the eye of science writers whose beat and interests include climate change and meteorology. Anyway, the tropical moisture that soaked Colorado got there through Mexico (and got weirdly deflected so that it hit the Rockies near Boulder from the south and east). And if it had not arrived through Mexico the stage likely would have been different when this week's cyclones converged on our neighbor to the south. Weather is a just-so story. More on that in a little rant that ends this post.

A pause now to sample some of the coverage of each bout of vicious weather.

Colorado Flood stories with science angles from the last few days:

  • NBC News - John Roach: Colorado floods triggered by confergence of geography and climate, experts say ; This, it says here, could be the new normal. A source notes that global warming might have directly added about 5% more moisture to the weather patterns, a reflection of the greater ability of warm air to absorb and retain water vapor. See closing rant for a personal take on such precise calibration of global warming's contribution.
  • Los Angeles Times - Monte Morin: Meteorology and geography collide in Colorado flooding: Very similar hed, but much thinner story than the one a bullet up at NBC. It does, sensibly, pin some blame on the popular habit of putting housing and towns in geologically obvious flood plains and too close to stream channels. It also has a source provide a meaningless answer to a meaningless question - was the extreme weather due to climate change? Again, see rant below.
  • Time Magazine - Bryan Walsh: The Science Behind Colorado's Thousand-Year Flood ; Not a long piece, but with a concise layout of factors behind the deluge. He has a wry way of explaining why it will be awhile before science can find global warming's fingerprints in the storm, if any obvious ones there be: "the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a major Boulder-based climate research institution, had to be closed because of flooding". He then gets serious and says "it’s usually taken years for researchers to attribute extreme events to climate change, and the don’t always find the evidence."
  • OnEarth (blog) Michael Behar: Get Ready for More 'Thousand-Year' Floods ; A first-person yarn with a twist - a source of apparent decent credential who calculates that the odds for just such a storm as this are really not so long in Boulder (with or without global warming, it appears). Best lline: "never knew we had native crayfish. Now they wer scampering across a jogging trail on the osuth side of town like panicked refugees."
  • Climate Central - Andrew Freedman: Colorado's 'Biblical' Flood in Line with Climate Trends ;

Mexico storm stories with a science angle:

  • USA Today - Doyle Rice: Mexico reels from tropical storms; will U.S. be next? ; Actually, I could not find any stories that focusses on background science to these events. But Rice is an old hand at climate and weather reporting. He does a good job learning from experts what this melange of wet air and swirling winds south of the US might do next.

One Last Thing (with rant):

Colorado's storms got a sizeable report from a big-time reporter looking straight on for possible means by which climate change raises the odds for the confluence of fronts that soaked the Front Range:

   Mooney seems to recognized fully that even when unchanging, climate's measure is possible only with long term statistics. But this story has in its headline - perhaps Chris did not write it - a popular but exasperating-to-this-bystander instance of muddled thinking.

The rant, at last.

How on Earth could "the Colorado floods" have occurred anyway last week, how could the very same weather event have been on some sort of cosmic agenda, meaning that with or without climate change it would have happened except that in the former case it came out worse, better, or otherwise distinctive?  One should never issue, if one intends to be bounded by plausible truth, a phrase such as "Hurricane Sandy was made worse by climate change." Without climate change, there would have been no Sandy, period. Maybe without climate change some far worse cyclone would have been rampaging elsewhere, but it wouldn't have been Sandy. Hardly anything else in the day's detailed weather stats would be the same other than in the sense that even broken clocks are right twice a day. If there are 20 Atlantic hurricanes in a given year, it is meaningless to designate some as ones that were the regulars and the rest were somehow jammed in by global warming. Even one extra resets the entire system, leaving it to reorganize while creating a whole new set of events. Global warming's impact, over time, would be the 'more' hurricanes, not a specific subset of them. The fingerprint might even be fewer such storms.  Wither way, weather is like multiple, inflationary universes budding off and bifurcating endlessly, ones that never reconverge exactly even if their statistical behaviors should be similar. It involves the canonical and nonlinear butterfly effect. Little disturbances propagate and change everything. If climate change only briefly and lightly interrupts the global parade of storms, droughts, breezes, and thunderstorms, the entire subsequent chain of evens must fairly soon shift and diverge in sequence and specific weather from what it would have been. There is no fixed parade of things on the schedule, with climate change popping up like Maxwell's demon and selectively tweaking this storm or that doldrums, then standing back while things revert to their preordained lineup. Sure, warmer air holds more water and thus new features of storms may start to show up - but the specific storms, all of them, will be as unique and distinct as the weather of any given year is never a replay of another year.

   Mooney's essential argument is a coherent one: Many modelers say climate change is tilting the field toward more extreme and diverse events. Therefore the very rare storm, monsoon, and blocking-front sequence over Boulder is part of the data set that will confirm or deny that purely statistical hypothesis - one that so far seems already to be striding on to firm ground.


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