You climate scientists and your models, part 1

Since my op-ed on hurricanes was published in the New York Times, I have gotten a number of emails and comments on this blog about it. Some of these can be characterized as climate-denying hate mail. This is inevitable any time one publishes virtually anything about climate in a prominent forum. It isn’t practical to respond to every one individually, and in some cases I don’t think it would be productive to do so. But I do spend some time thinking about what people write, if it seems that they’ve put any thought into it – even if that thought is expressed in a hostile way – and want to respond in a general way to some of it.

I should explain first that you won’t see the comments I am talking about here. This is a moderated site, moderated by me, and I don’t approve climate denialist comments. You can tell me I’m wrong about something and that’s fine – I’ll still approve it, if it’s written in a way that suggests you’re open to evidence and argument. But I don’t approve comments that parrot the standard tropes you hear on Fox News and other standard anti-science sources in order to justify complete rejection mainstream climate science. Typical indicators of such comments are conspiracy theories, mentions of Al Gore*, calling me or other climate scientists “liars” etc. There are plenty of places to vent this kind of stuff online; I’m not going to host it here for my little blog’s twelve readers.

That said, today I want to respond to one criticism that was common to a number of the responses I got, though. This is that my argument was based to a large extent on models and theory. Several critics wrote that this is not real “evidence”.

(One can also argue that the models are bad, having been disproved by observations, and so should be disregarded. In a few days, I’ll put up a second part to this post in which I’ll respond to that. Today I’m just writing about the general question of whether models and theory can constitute evidence for a scientific claim at all.)

When we are talking about the future, models and theory are essential, because there can be no prediction of the future without a model or theory of some kind. If you think that the only valid evidence in a scientific argument is an observation of something that has already happened, then you can’t talk about the future at all. It hasn’t happened yet, so there are no observations of it.

Science is about taking observations and integrating them within the context of ideas about how the world works – theory and models – using them to test those ideas, and then, to the extent the ideas hold up, using the ideas to make predictions of things that haven’t been observed yet. If you want to disqualify predictions based on models and theory from science, then you also have to argue that science can’t make any predictions about the future of anything. If you really believe that, then say that. But don’t say there’s something wrong with climate science in particular because it uses models.

(Of course, there are some predictions that are so trivially easy that they seem not to require a model. For example, I predict the sun will rise tomorrow. We could argue about whether I am still using an implicit model of some kind to make that prediction, but it doesn’t matter here because climate change is not a case of this kind. Let’s restrict ourselves to nontrivial predictions, where we can’t rely on very simple patterns from past experience to tell us what will happen.)

That said, there are models and there are models. I argued in the op-ed that “physics” agreed with “models” and that that showed consistency between two lines of evidence. One commenter argued that the models are also based on physics, so these are not independent. Depending on how you interpret the words “physics” and “models”, this can be read as a fair criticism – assuming you read only the op-ed, which had to skip over a lot of the argument in our paper in Science on which it was based. I used the word “physics” to mean the same thing as what I am calling “theory” here.

(I’m sorry that the Science paper itself is behind a paywall; I am told by the journal that I will soon get a link allowing me to legally provide the full paper for free from my academic publications web page, but I don’t have that yet.)

The Science paper focuses on a quantity called potential intensity. This derives from a theory in the tradition of physics. (This does not mean it is speculative, or just a hypothesis unsupported by evidence. It means it is a set of logically connected statements that explains and synthesizes many observations. Newton’s theory of gravity is a theory too.) Potential intensity theory contains an explicit set of statements about what a hurricane is and how it works. It then takes the equations of classical mechanics and thermodynamics and makes a set of approximations and simplifications based on those statements. (For example, the hurricane is assumed to be circularly symmetric, so the equations simplify from three dimensions to two, radius and height.) This leads to a prediction of how strong a hurricane can get within a given local climate. Most hurricanes don’t reach their potential intensities, but how strong a real hurricane gets, on average, is still related to the potential intensity. So if potential intensity increases, we predict that real hurricanes will get stronger. Knowing whether potential intensity will increase or not requires us to make a detailed prediction of how climate will change – not just the surface temperature, but the temperature and humidity throughout the atmosphere as well. We can do this with climate models.

The distinction between a “theory” like potential intensity theory and a “model” like the ones used to make weather forecasts or climate change projections is one of complexity. The models we use for real weather and climate prediction are very big, complex computer codes that solve the equations of physics as applied to the atmosphere. The solutions can’t be written down in simple form, but can only be represented approximately by huge numbers of numbers, which we typically visualize in maps and charts. The models make some approximations too, but not nearly as many or as severe as a theory like potential intensity does. They retain as much of the atmosphere’s full complexity as they can (quite a lot, on today’s powerful computers) and the results of their simulations can’t generally be predicted ahead of time.

The climate models used to make climate change projections generally don’t simulate hurricanes well, because they don’t have enough resolution – just like a digital camera image without enough pixels to make out something small. They do simulate the climate well, though. (Not perfectly, of course, but remarkably well; but defending that statement is not today’s topic.) We take those models’ predictions of the local climate all over the world in the future, and calculate the potential intensity from it. We compare that to the potential intensity that the same models produce in the present climate, and use the difference to predict how hurricanes’ intensities should change. That is one piece of evidence.

Then there are some climate models that have high enough resolution to simulate hurricanes well. With those models, we don’t need to use potential intensity theory. We can just run them in a warmer climate and see how their hurricanes change compared to a cooler climate. That is another piece of evidence. It’s different than the one in the previous paragraph, because it involves direct simulation of hurricanes and does not require us to accept potential intensity theory as valid. The two kinds of models are similar in how they predict the climate itself, but completely different in how they represent hurricanes. And my argument in the op-ed is not about climate change itself – I take for granted that we know how the climate as changing, at least in broad outline – but rather how that climate change affects hurricanes. So for this purpose, it’s two pieces of evidence, both of which indicate that warming due to greenhouse gases, acting alone – that is, without too much aerosol cooling to counteract it – should cause hurricanes to strengthen.

Yes, both pieces of evidence are from models. But again, if you want to predict the future there is nothing else.


*Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, was reasonably accurate, as I recall, given the climate science of its time. And while I haven’t watched it since then, I’d say it’s probably still mostly right, at least in broad outline. I do recall, however, that the material about hurricanes was overstated even given the science of the time, and the science on that topic has advanced a lot further since then. But in any case, Al Gore is a politician, not a scientist, and his movie was not a statement by the scientific community. When people say climate science is wrong because they don’t like Al Gore or his movie, it is an indicator – usually accompanied by others – that they are forming their opinions based on political affiliation rather than consideration of evidence or argument.


Tropical migrations

Solomon Hsiang and I have a new paper out in Scientific Reports.A blog post about it by Stacy Morford is on the Lamont site. The paper points out the ramifications of a basic fact about the structure of earth’s temperature for potential climate change-induced migrations of species, including humans. In one sentence: tropical temperature gradients are small so that it takes a long migration to cool off if you start near the equator.

This new paper is a little different than my usual, in that it’s about impacts of climate change rather than about the physics of weather and climate itself. It does connect the physics to the impacts, in that the uniformity of tropical temperatures is a consequence of basic geophysical dynamics and a fact that I have made extensive use of in my normal (purely meteorological) research. It’s a theoretical study and not to be taken as a prediction of any specific migration, but we think the main point is nonetheless relevant to more practical and realistic discussions on this topic.

The lead author, Sol Hsiang, got his Ph.D. at Columbia some years ago in our sustainable development program, and has gone on to become a star in the rapidly growing field of climate impacts. He deserves most credit for this paper; the only reason I could participate in a study like this is because he had the idea and kindly asked me to be involved.

Extreme event attribution

I have not been keeping up here the last few months. To start the catching up process:

During the fall and winter I was part of a committee convened by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to perform a study on extreme event attribution. This is the science of making specific, quantitative statements about how a specific individual weather event was influenced by human-induced climate change. It was a wonderful experience working with my colleagues on the committee, most of whom I hadn’t known before, and (not having previously worked on attribution myself and thus not being an expert in it before we started) I learned a great deal. Not just about the subject matter, either – tt was my first NAS committee and very informative to see how the sausage is made. We think the report came out very well, and it seems to have been well received.

The report itself is available for free online in electronic form; hard copies cost money (and aren’t available yet). I wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post’s Capitol Weather Gang (thanks Jason Samenow!) to express some of my own perspective in a more informal way. Climate Central Chief Scientist Heidi Cullen wrote one for the NY Times, and my colleague on the committee (and former AMS President) Marshall Shepherd wrote one in Forbes. There was lots of other media coverage, easily found through your favorite search engine; here’s a piece on the Lamont web page by Stacy Morford.

On Thursday, April 7, I’ll be speaking at an event about the report with committee chair Rear Adm. Dr. David Titley and AP science reporter Seth Borenstein, moderated by Heidi Cullen, at the NAS Koshland Museum.

December 2015’s crazy weather

I’m in Oregon, where December has broken rainfall records east of the Cascades, and the Cascades themselves are deep in snow. I got to see some of it up by Mt. Hood yesterday on a Christmas Day family cross-country ski outing.


Though that was beautiful, I’m still sad to be missing the record-breaking warmth back east. (I like warm weather; it’s not an accident that most of my research over my career to date has been about tropical meteorology.) To help myself experience it vicariously, I wrote an op-ed piece for CNN about what the probable causes are. It has even been translated into Spanish.

Mumbai and Chennai

Last week I had an op-ed piece in the Times of India. It’s about the risk to the city of Mumbai from a tropical cyclone landfall and storm surge.

Mumbai is on the Arabian Sea, where tropical cyclones are relatively rare, and the city hasn’t been struck by a serious one in a very long time – well beyond living memory. If it were, though, the results could be catastrophic, as it’s both very low-lying and heavily developed right to the shore. This is exactly the recipe for an awful disaster: high vulnerability, low awareness of the risk.

I had the opportunity to write this thanks to an invitation from the great writer Amitav Ghosh, who was the guest editor for this issue of ToI. I was thrilled to get an email this past summer from Amitav, in which he said that he had enjoyed my book Storm Surge and wanted to talk to me about climate change and the risk to Mumbai. This was related to a series of lectures he was to give (now has given) at the University of Chicago in which climate change is a central theme, and which will be turned into a book in due time.

Amitav and I subsequently met to discuss the science of climate change and tropical cyclones in my apartment in New York as he was making his way to Chicago. By this time I had begun making my way through his books. They are wonderful. Themes of history, environment, ecology, and climate are woven through them, and cyclones figure prominently as plot elements in at least a couple. I got several copies signed.

So now the op-ed has come out. (The issue also has an interview with Amitav himself, and a piece by Christian Parenti on the relationship between climate and Naxalite violence in India.) Coincidentally, my piece on hypothetical flooding of Mumbai appeared at the same time as a new burst of extreme rainfall was causing very real flooding in Chennai, on India’s opposite coast.


Infrared satellite image from November 17, showing a disturbance that one of the earlier waves of flooding in Chennai.

The Chennai flooding had begun a couple of weeks earlier, when cyclone BOB3 (“BOB” stands for “Bay of Bengal” – this storm was never strong enough to get a proper name) came ashore. This is the storm that had formed in the Bay of Bengal while cyclone Megh was in the Arabian Sea, heading for Yemen. Some forecast models predicted that BOB3 would cross the subcontinent and reach the Arabian Sea itself. But it didn’t do that. It hung around over land as a disorganized disturbance, dumping lots of rain.

Then another major burst on December 1 – a foot of rain fell on that one day. This after 40 inches in November (from BOB3 and a couple of other storms) – three times the average in Chennai for that month, and about equal to New York City’s annual average.

While it was a tremendous amount of rain, some argue that the flooding was made much more severe by careless development of Chennai in recent years, as floodplains and drainage channels have been paved over. The story is similar in Mumbai, where destruction of mangroves and river channelization have been blamed for similarly exacerbating the flood which occurred there in 2005 (also driven by rain, not storm surge, nor related to a cyclone) – and will similarly make things worse if, someday, a cyclone causes a major storm surge there. And to New York City, for that matter, where real estate development is now hot again in some of the areas worst hit by Sandy. I don’t know that op-eds or books can make much difference in the face of such indifference to risk, but it’s worth trying.

Review of Storm Surge by Brian Mapes in BAMS

In current issue of the Bulletin of the America Meteorological Society is a review of Storm Surge by Brian Mapes. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful, insightful review (I say from my totally unbiased perspective). Brian saw everything I had hoped the reader would see in the book. Now, BAMS is not the New York Times; this won’t sell thousands of books. But it means a great deal to get this kind of approval, from such a brilliant colleague, in a core publication of my own field. I didn’t write the book for other meteorologists, really, but if they didn’t like it, I’d know I had done something wrong. Thanks Brian!