How the California drought is like Sandy

Richard Seager and I have an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times about how the current drought in California is like Hurricane Sandy in New York. We’re not thrilled with the title (which we didn’t write, nor get to review before publication) as it seems to imply some possibility that human-induced climate change might not be occurring. We do not say nor imply that in the piece; quite the contrary. But ok, that’s the deal when you send things to newspapers. We’re very appreciative that they ran it, and hopefully the main messages come through to anyone who reads past the title.



I just spent two days in San Francisco at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. This is a conference of scientists from all the earth sciences, and from all over the world. Its 24,000 people overflow the Moscone Center in the SoMa district of downtown SF.

I heard some great science there, but today am just writing about the more personal dimensions of the experience. Nothing about extreme weather or climate change today, sorry, come back later for that!

I was at AGU just for the first two two days (it continues all week), and I was already exhausted by the time I left. AGU is thrilling, but overwhelming. There are two enormous buildings full of large-to-giant rooms in which talks and poster presentations of new research are going on ten hours a day for five days. There is so much going on that it’s impossible to take in even a small fraction of what you’d like to.

Some young scientists, new to the experience, study the schedule, figuring out what they want to see the most and putting together a plan to run from one session to the next. The oldsters like me have mostly given up on that, just taking it one day and one hour at a time.

I can’t sit in a big dark room listening to one 15-minute talk after another for that long without losing it. But the poster sessions make me even crazier than the oral ones. Subterranean indoor spaces the size of multiple football fields are filled with endless rows of posterboards, each row so long you can’t see from one end to the other. Each board has a poster, basically a 4’x6’ oversized index card full of graphs, charts and words. The scientist who made each poster stands in front of it hoping to attract customers to talk to about their results. It’s a small-city-sized open air market full of hawkers selling the latest scientific research for the price of the time it takes to stand there and take in their spiels. There’s just so much there that it’s hard to know where to start. I feel awkward either walking past the posters that have no takers, trying to see enough to decide whether I want to stay while not slowing down so much as to get the lonely author’s hopes up in case I decide no; or else trying to elbow into the little crowds gathered around the really popular posters.

If you’ve been in the field for a while, there will be many, many people you know at AGU. Some say the reason to go is not to go to the talks or posters, but just to talk to people. The volume of research published these days is so great that one can’t hope to read but a fraction of it, and talking to people is a quick way to find out about the most interesting new stuff. Research collaborators from points distant get a chance to sit and look at their plots together; groups of various sorts can meet in person without having to add another trip somewhere, since most people are at AGU anyway; big research institutions in the field (including mine) hold evening parties for their alumni; and old friends get to catch up.

But even talking to people can be hard. Sure, you know lots of people, but if you don’t plan, you may not run into the ones you want, to, and you definitely may not find time to actually talk to them – they are also running around from session to session and meeting to meeting, trying to make the most of their time. So like with the formal presentations, the informal interactions take planning at AGU.

Whether because I’m not much good at that kind of planning, or because of other factors in my psyche that I can’t control, I inevitably leave AGU feeling somewhat depressed. Sure, I heard some interesting new science and saw some old friends and colleagues, but I missed so much. I don’t even know what I missed, really, but surely some of it must have been great, right?

But ok, it’s still wonderful to be able to go. That AGU has grown so large is a sign of the intellectual health and excitement in the earth sciences. And while in many respects I probably get more out of smaller meetings – where one can just show up and pretty much be able to take everything in – there’s nothing like the electricity of a giant event where it seems as though everyone you know (plus tens of thousands of people you don’t) is there, and where everywhere you turn your head something potentially interesting is going on. It’s like a really, really big wedding, or some other kind of party with huge numbers of friends and relatives that you don’t want to miss even though you know you’re going to fail to catch up properly with most of them.

Plus, it’s in San Francisco.

AGU wears me out, and every year I say I need to take next year off from it. Sometimes I do, but most years I seem to be back.

Talking about tropical cyclones in Jeju: IWTC-VIII

I spent last week on Jeju Island, South Korea, for the Eighth International Workshop on Tropical Cyclones (IWTC-VIII) organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Every four years, the WMO convenes this meeting, which gets together forecasters and researchers from all over the world to review the last four years’ advances in the science of tropical cyclones (also known as hurricanes, typhoons etc.). It’s an invitation-only meeting, which reflects (or maybe is one of the causes of) the fact that tropical cyclone experts are a close-knit club. I had never been invited before, which I took to mean that I was not really part of the club. I guess I am now.


View east along the south coast of Jeju Island, near Jungmun Beach. In the foreground are basalt columns formed by rapid cooling of lava.

In the months before the meeting, the scientists involved put together a report to the WMO summarizing the advances since the last meeting in both basic science and operational forecasting practices. The structure of the meeting reflects the structure of the report. There are five overarching topics, each of which is a chapter, and a session of the meeting: 1. Motion; 2. Cyclogenesis, intensity and intensity change; 3. Communication and effective warning systems; 4. Structure and structure change; 5. Beyond synoptic timescales. Each topic has multiple subtopics, each subtopic has a “rapporteur” (or sometimes two) who led a team of people in the writing of their part of the report; the overall topic has a “topic chair” who organizes all of the subtopic reports and writes an introduction to the whole chapter.

I was the topic chair for topic 5, “Beyond synoptic time scales”. The word “synoptic” here refers to the time scale of a typical tropical cyclone forecast, a few days. The subtopics were climate change, seasonal forecasting, and intraseasonal forecasting – in that order, decreasing the time horizon sequentially.Seasonal forecasts are forecasts of overall tropical cyclone activity (with no details about specific storms on specific dates) for a particular region, made months in advance. The most important phenomenon that controls TCs on this time scale and makes the forecasts possible is El Nino. The “intraseasonal” time scale, also known as “subseasonal”, covers everything shorter than that, but longer than the range of a typical weather forecast. So, about 10 days to a month or two. On this time scale, the most important single phenomenon (though not the only one) modulating TC activity is the Madden-Julian oscillation, or MJO (see also here, here, and here).

Although I wasn’t at previous IWTCs, my sense is that at the last few, climate change has been a contentious topic.  Around 2005, Katrina and the hyperactive Atlantic season of that year, combined with a couple of high-profile papers showing increasing trends in various measures of TC activity, caused a dramatic increase in the volume of research being done on the links between climate and TCs (and in the number of researchers doing it). Combined with some historical cultural differences between TC experts and climate scientists, this led to some growing pains in the field in the mid-late 2000s. A lot of that has been sorted out now. Not that we know everything or that everyone agrees on the fundamentals – far from it – but the field has advanced rapidly in a decade, and a lot of the early contention has shaken out. It’s much clearer what we know and what we don’t. So this part of the meeting, and the report, while not without debate, was actually relatively placid.

In my view the most exciting new developments have been in the intraseasonal arena. Just a few years ago – certainly a decade ago – weather forecast models could not predict the MJO to save their lives. The best ones have become dramatically better at it, and now show skill in MJO prediction out to as long as 4 weeks’ lead time. Since the MJO influences tropical cyclones, this – combined with broader overall improvement in the models – makes new kinds of forecasts possible, well beyond the 5-day time frame of current tropical cyclone forecasts.

Forecasts in this range, let’s say a week to 2-3 weeks, are just barely starting to come into view. They exist still mostly in research mode, and are mostly not yet issued to the public. There are a few exceptions; an example is the NOAA CPC Global Tropics Hazards and Benefits Outlook, a “climate-like” product which defines large areas in which things could happen in the next two weeks. Other, more weather forecast – like products are clearly possible, such as long-range forecasts of the track and intensity of a specific storm that are produced several days before it has formed (currently, no agency issues public track and intensity forecasts for a tropical cyclone before it actually exists) – such forecasts would not be highly accurate, but could give some indication of a threat to a broad region ten, or even 15-20 days in advance. The science and technology now exist, since just recently, to issue products with some skill in this range. But forecasters are conservative. Before they’ll issue such products, they need time to understand how good or bad these forecasts are, and to learn how to communicate them effectively so that users of the forecasts grasp the uncertainties.


Typhoon Hagupit on December 4, 2014. Day-night visible image from the VIIRS sensor on the NPOESS satellite, from the CIRA TC web page.

Meanwhile, during the whole conference, Typhoon Hagupit was drawing closer to the Philippines. It was quite a fearsome storm at midweek, reaching Super Typhoon status. We had regular forecast briefings during the latter part of the conference, from the Japanese and Korean Meteorological Agencies. Thankfully the storm weakened quite a bit before landfall. Between that and better evacuations, it looks so far like it won’t be near the disaster that Haiyan was last year. But Hagpuit provided a constant vivid reminder, as one presenter said at the start of this talk, of “why we do this”.