‘Expect the unprecedented’

An interview with Weatherunderground’s Dr. Jeff Masters:

Christine Shearer: How do you think about the relationship between climate, climate change, and daily weather?

Jeff Masters: Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. I like to think of the weather as a game of dice. Mother Nature rolls the dice each day to determine the weather, and the rolls fall within the boundaries of what the climate will allow. The extreme events that happen at the boundaries of what are possible are what people tend to notice the most. When the climate changes, those boundaries change. Thus, the main way people will tend to notice climate change is through a change in the extreme events that occur at the boundaries of what is possible. If you want a longer explanation, think of the weather as a game of dice like craps or backgammon, where Mother Nature rolls two six-sided dice to decide the day’s weather. There are 36 possible combinations of the two dice, and rolls can range from two to twelve. Most often, an ordinary roll like six, seven, or eight comes up; seven is the most common, with a 6 in 36 probability. Rolls of six and eight are only slightly less common, coming up with a 5 in 36 probability. These rolls of the “weather dice” correspond to typical summer weather–high temperatures in the mid- to upper 70s on a nice summer day in New York City, for instance. It is much harder to roll an extreme event–snake eyes (corresponding to a record cold day, with a high near 65), or double sixes (a record warm day, with a high near 100.) These rolls only have a 1 in 36 chance of occurring–about 3%.

Now think about what happens if we take one of the six-sided “weather dice” and paint an extra spot on each side. The old die still rolls a one through six, but the new die now rolls a two through seven. The most likely roll increases to an eight, so we’ve shifted to a warmer climate, getting a typical summertime high of 78 degrees instead of 76. However, the increase in 78 degree days isn’t that noticeable, since we’ve only increased the likelihood of getting an eight on our “weather dice” from 5 in 36 to 6 in 36. But now look at what has happened to extreme events as a result of loading our “weather dice” in favor of higher rolls. Whereas before we had only a 3% chance of rolling a twelve on our “weather dice”–an extreme heat day of 100 degrees in New York City – we’ve now tripled these chances to almost 9%, since there are three possible combinations of the dice that total twelve or higher. Moreover, it is no longer possible to roll snake eyes, corresponding to a record cold day, but it is now possible to roll a 13–a previously unprecedented weather event. Temperatures higher than 106, New York City’s previous all-time high temperature, can now occur.

6 Responses to ‘Expect the unprecedented’

  1. Major Kong February 8, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    Nobody except neandertals are disputing that the climate is changing and that the present temporal trend is warming. But that fact needs to be set within the facts of the larger temperature record, which is established science. There are any number of reliable ice core records (http://westinstenv.org/sosf/2010/02/23/global-cooling-not-warming-is-the-problem/) and temperature sets (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100022226/agw-i-refute-it-thus-central-england-temperatures-1659-to-2009/) to go by in this regard, as well as the paleoclimate (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/climatechange/visualizations/paleoclimate.html) as told by the geological record (http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/climatechange), which is also 100 percent factually established science.

    Considering that there was once 6,000 feet of ice above what is now Albany, NY, we’re in much better shape than we were about 13,000 years ago. Granted the sledding isn’t as good, but life is full of trade-offs like that. For humans inhabiting a cooling rock floating in the vast frozen sea of space, a little heat is a good thing.

  2. Imhotep February 8, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    Nobody has yet explained how pumping tons of burnt carbon into the atmosphere on a daily bases is not harmful to all living things on earth? Would anyone kneel down and suck the exhaust from a tailpipe? If you did that you’d first burn your lips off and then your lungs would fill with enough toxins to kill you. Changing the climate is one issue. The other is not being able to breath the polluted air.

  3. Major Kong February 8, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    Imhotep, strictly speaking, the Earth is a closed system for particulates and pollutants, but it thermodynamically open in that it receives huge amounts of solar energy constantly.

    Everything that ever was here will stay here. The fossil fuels change state through combustion into their chemical components and byproducts.

    No doubt humans are causing some climate alterations, heat islands and etc., but the climatic and weather cycling has been happening literally forever, through all of Earth history. Only difference now is that there are people who can measure it. Self-awareness is a biatch at so many different levels, isn’t it?

  4. Imhotep February 8, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Major Kong, true enough. But…all of that oil was deep in the ground until about 150 years ago. Then we brought it to the surface and started burning it by the ton day after day and year after year. So now a billion or two earthlings are burning tons of the crap everyday. Something that the earth’s closed system has never had to deal with before. What makes you so sure that the atmosphere has the capacity to deal with it now?

  5. Major Kong February 8, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    This is hardly the venue to debate such a topic, but there have been plenty of CO2 spikes in Earth history as recorded in the Vostok ice cores and other places. In terms of Earth history, we’re actually in a cool interlude right now, an ice age (with both poles covered with ice and snow).
    There are plenty of places to observe this. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/11/650000-years-of-greenhouse-gas-concentrations/
    and this one is especially telling, in that it shows that, historically, CO2 actually follows temperature: http://www.skepticalscience.com/Why-does-CO2-lag-temperature.html

    That said, it’s probably not the best thing that humans are doing this to their environment and ultimately humans will be the ones hurt by it. It’s useful to remember that all the carbon sequestered in the fossil fuels, unless we want to argue that it it abiogenic in nature, was once loose in the environment in other elemental chemical states — loosing it again is not necessarily a bad thing for life. Remember that CO2 is plant food.
    Read about the Milankovitch cycles and watch this video and you’ll know more about climate change and its causes than 99 percent of humans. Video: http://youtu.be/ANMTPF1blpQ

    The cosmic origins of climate change is something that the arm-waving fear mongers of the anthropogenic warming school will never admit, lest they fall victims to their own professional inquisitors. If all this isn’t enough, keep in mind that we are in an interglacial warming period that has been happening for about 13,000 years, since the Laurentide ice sheets have begun melting and raised the sea levels 250 feet, or about 5mm per year, causing the Chesapeake Bay to form and the Bering Strait land bridge to close up. It’s not the end of the world as we know it.

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