Sunday, December 25, 2011

Must read: Extreme weather and why we can't study it

The New York Times is running a story today covering the weather record for 2011:

    A typical year in this country features three or four weather disasters whose costs exceed $1 billion each. But this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tallied a dozen such events, including wildfires in the Southwest, floods in multiple regions of the country and a deadly spring tornado season. And the agency has not finished counting. The final costs are certain to exceed $50 billion.
    “I’ve been a meteorologist 30 years and never seen a year that comes close to matching 2011 for the number of astounding, extreme weather events,” Jeffrey Masters, a co-founder of the popular Web site Weather Underground, said last month. “Looking back in the historical record, which goes back to the late 1800s, I can’t find anything that compares, either."
William Luther/The San Antonio Express-News, via AP
  But the more important and core thrust of the story is why our government agencies are not doing all they could to build good analysis of extreme events, which would help inform business and government about what to prepare for in the future:
   Lately, scientists have been discussing whether they can do a better job of analyzing events within days or weeks, not years.
    “It’s clear we do have the scientific tools and the statistical wherewithal to begin answering these types of questions,” Dr. Santer said
But doing this on a regular basis would probably require new personnel spread across several research teams, along with a strong push by the federal government, which tends to be the major source of financing and direction for climate and weather research. Yet Washington is essentially frozen on the subject of climate change.
    This year, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tried to push through a reorganization that would have provided better climate forecasts to businesses, citizens and local governments, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked it
   The idea had originated in the Bush administration, was strongly endorsed by an outside review panel and would have cost no extra money. But the House Republicans, many of whom reject the overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes of global warming, labeled the plan an attempt by the Obama administration to start a “propaganda” arm on climate.
There's a lot more, it's worth your time: Harsh Political Reality Slows Climate Studies Despite Extreme Year