Vongfong – like mother like daughter?

Fortunately, Phanfone turned out not to be a major disaster for Japan. There have been some power outages, some disruption to air travel and other things, and a handful of people killed (mainly due to being in or near the waves at at a bad time, whether the Americans in Okinawa or the surfer in Kanagawa). Nothing to make light of, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.

But it’s not yet time for Japan to relax. The next Typhoon, Vongfong, is spinning its wheels in the tropical western Pacific, and is likely to take almost the same path as Phanfone did, down to the landfall on Honshu, Japan’s big island.

Vongfong is currently estimated to be a category 2 storm, with peak winds of 90 knots, or over 100 mph. It has developed the appearance to go with that intensity, including a proper eye, seen here in the latest visible satellite image:



Track and intensity forecasts for this storm, as for all tropical cyclones in the western Pacific, are issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) and the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Like the US National Hurricane Center (which produces all our forecasts here in the US for the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific) and other forecast centers worldwide, both agencies issue forecasts out to 5 days. The current track forecasts look quite similar to what Phanfone’s did at this stage. This includes especially the northward turn, scheduled for around 48 hours from now, shown here in the current forecast map from JMA:


While these forecasts have no landfall in them yet, the numerical models seem to be reaching some agreement that Japan is likely to get another one in about a week. Here is a forecast map from NOAA’s GFS model for 00 UTC next Tuesday, October 14. (The recent runs of the ECMWF model look pretty similar.) The map shows surface pressure (contours) together with 500 hPa geopotential height (color shading). Vongfong is the bullseye riding up the east coast of Honshu, interacting with an upper level trough (the southward dip in the ribbons of color) to undergo extratropical transition into a midlatitude cyclone:



Even the intensity forecast (from JTWC) is eerily similar to Phanfone’s. At 90 kt now, Vongfong is forecast to make it up to a 130 kt super typhoon, in the low end of category 4, over the next 48 hours, before starting to weaken again as it moves over cooler waters and higher wind shear. Just how much it weakens is the key question – the phasing with the upper trough in the model run above is just of the right kind to add an extra jolt of energy from the jet stream at landfall. (That’s what happened to Sandy just about two years ago, and in fact the map above would look quite similar to the equivalent one at Sandy’s landfall, if one were to swap North America for Asia.)

Why would two storms develop so similarly, one right after the other?

First, the Western North Pacific has more tropical cyclones per year than any other region on earth. A typical year sees around 90 in the whole earth; the WNP typically accounts for 25 or 30 of those. For our North Atlantic 10 would be about average.

But there’s more to it than just a lot of storms. They do form in bunches sometimes, and it may not be an accident. One typhoon can help generate the next one, when its own spin interacts with the earth’s much larger-scale rotation to produce a “Rossby wave” wake in the atmosphere to its east or southeast – a high pressure, clear weather ridge, followed by another low-pressure trough, typically about 2000-3000 km away, which then is a promising site for another typhoon to form. I haven’t analyzed the early biographies of Phanfone and Vongfong yet to see if they might have been such a “mother-daughter” pair at Vongfong’s genesis, but if they did it wouldn’t be very unusual.

As for the tracks being the same after genesis, that may be just a consequence of the large-scale steering winds not having changed much during the interval between the two storms. It’s fall, the Pacific jet stream should be starting to make its way south, but isn’t far enough south yet for its westerlies to blow the storms back out to sea before they get as far north as Japan.

While those scientific explanations are backed by some research – the links above are to my own research papers, with my former Ph.D. student Kyle Krouse – I don’t think we understand everything we could about the clustering of tropical cyclones in time and space.

Perhaps the most extreme case in (relatively) recent memory was the Atlantic season of 2005, when the hurricanes just kept coming, one after another, long after they had any right to. That was mind-boggling at the time. This current pair in the Pacific may be less so, but it still feels a little spooky.


Typhoon Phanfone – a post that will be immediately out of date

Typhoon Phanfone has been closing in on Japan for days, and is in the process of making landfall as I write.

The storm earlier had made it to the bottom end of category four on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with peak sustained winds of 130 knots and a very small “pinhole” eye. The pinhole eye is almost always a sign of a scary storm, because the way tropical cyclones develop really strong winds is by contracting their eyewalls inward. As with a skater who pulls her arms in while she does a spin on the ice, conservation of angular momentum increases the rate of rotation because the distance from the axis has shrunk.

By now the storm is considerably weaker, with peak sustained winds estimated at 80 knots, category 1. According to the cyclone phase space diagnostic of Prof. Robert Hart at Florida State University, Phanfone is in the process of extratropical transition, turning into an extratropical or “winter” type storm. It has lost its eye and most of its circular symmetry, as one can see in the current infrared satellite image, and is forecast soon to lose its warm core. In a current weather map with colors showing temperature at 850 hPa (about 1.5 km above the surface; this is actually a plot from the most recent 12-hour forecast made by NOAA’s GFS model about 12 hours ago, image courtesy weather.unisys.com), one can see the strong contrasts associated with fronts, typical of extratropical storms, cutting through the center. The strongest rains will be on the left side of the track – over land – as the moist tropical air rides counterclockwise up and over the colder air mass to the west.



Despite its weakened status, Phanfone is still no joke. The rains will likely be in the hundreds of mm (100 mm = about 4 inches), including likely on Mount Ontake, the volcano where over 50 people died in the recent eruption and the recovery of bodies is still ongoing.

The storm surge forecasts appear to be in the 1-2 meter range, or 3-6 feet. The warnings appear to be concentrated in Fukushima prefecture, site of the 2011 tsunami-induced nuclear disaster. While storm surges and tsunamis have completely different causes, they are otherwise very similar phenomena – either way something pushes the sea onto the land. The 1 or 2 meters this typhoon is forecast to produce are nothing compared to the 40 meters that the earthquake of three and a half years ago produced, so that’s good. But still… I have no detailed knowledge of the current state of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, but my understanding is that it is still not in particularly great shape. I hope that 1-2 meters of surge plus combined heavy rains and wind aren’t enough to do any more serious harm to this already awfully blighted place.

In news coming in now: images of flooding, and speculation that Tokyo, almost directly in the path of the center, might see an all-time record for strongest wind.

Denial among physicists, part 1

This past Friday and Saturday I attended the annual meeting of the New York State Section of the American Physical Society, at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. This meeting is held once per year, with a different specialized topic every year. I had never been before; the topic usually has little  to do with my field. This time, though, the topic was “Physics of the Atmosphere and Climate”. The organizers invited me, and I went. I thought it would be interesting to meet some of my colleagues from physics departments in my home state. Also, I love the Adirondacks, the mountains near Plattsburgh.

It was a very small conference, maybe 30 people in the room. There were a total of ten talks. Of the speakers, only four, by my count – including me – were active researchers in atmospheric or climate science, by which I mean people with a recent record of publishing research articles in this field. The others appeared either not to be active researchers at all (they were college or university faculty whom I assume hold pure teaching positions), or researchers in other areas of physics.

I bring up the expertise and research activity of the participants because it was also unusual in my experience. Most scientific conferences I attend are held for the sole purpose of sharing research results within a specific field (or sometimes, a set of closely related fields). The participants, consequently, tend to be researchers in that field. They expect to be held to a high standard of evidence and argument, because they know the room will be full of other researchers with expertise in their field.

The defining feature of this conference for me turned out to be climate denial. I had not encountered this before, to this degree and of this kind, in my professional life. (Richard Lindzen was one of my teachers in graduate school, and I came to know him quite well; that was different, in several ways, and is a topic for another time.) There really is a consensus among climate scientists; while one can hear much debate about many issues at any scientific conference in our field, I have never heard wholesale rejection of that consensus at one. I had not expected it here either, at a conference of physicists. Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have. In any case, I was genuinely stunned at first.

At least three of the participants at the meeting – all three of them speakers, so their talks formed a significant fraction of the program – were deniers[1]. I heard two of their talks; I missed the third because I had made a prior commitment that required leaving a little early. The third speaker, however, made his views clear in questions and comments to other presenters throughout the meeting, and I also spoke with him in the hallway outside the auditorium during one of the breaks.

Today I will describe the first of the two talks that I heard by these speakers.

This speaker was a physics faculty member who, judging from his web page, does not seem to be active in research of any kind. His career appears to consist entirely of public communications of various sorts decrying “global warming alarmism”.

The talk was almost entirely without relevant facts. I don’t mean that that I disagreed with his interpretations of such facts as he presented (though that is certainly true) but that for almost the entire talk, he didn’t present any facts that were relevant to a critique of mainstream climate science, as practiced by scientists and published in the scientific literature.

Much of the talk consisted of general statements about the scientific method. (“If a theory doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s false.”) The innuendo seemed to be that mainstream climate scientists don’t follow that method. Almost no evidence was presented to back up this claim. This speaker did critique statements about climate science, but these statements were taken mostly from non-scientific sources.

The speaker pointed out an error in a children’s book about climate change. He pointed out what he claimed was an error in a Greenpeace protest sign. The statement on the sign was “CO2 kills”. The speaker argued that this was wrong, because humans are not harmed by breathing the small concentrations of carbon dioxide that exist in the present atmosphere. (This is true, but a totally irrelevant canard, though one often brought up by the crudest deniers. Nobody serious – including Greenpeace, I suspect – argues anything different. The problem with human-induced increases in CO2 is that they warm the climate, and also that they acidify the ocean, but not that the higher levels of CO2 are harmful to humans directly.) He showed a page of links that came up in a google search he had done on climate (I can’t remember the exact search term) and critiqued that.

At a couple of points, this speaker did present actual data on issues which have been subjects of legitimate debate in climate science. In both cases – I counted two slides of this type, in a talk over thirty minutes long containing about that many slides – the substance was grossly mischaracterized. By this I mean that the speaker raised a criticism of the mainstream view of anthropogenic global warming which is old, and which has been addressed and answered exhaustively in the literature, without mentioning those answers. In neither case was a peer-reviewed source cited. To critique the IPCC report, the author did not show a figure from it and explain what was wrong with it. Instead he showed the aforementioned figure from a children’s book – whose caption, the author claimed (and I will grant without checking, for the sake of argument), contained an error – and one figure obtained from another well-known denier. I assume the latter figure was unpublished, as no published source was cited, only the name of the person who had provided it, in the form “from (person’s name)”.

This speaker spoke admiringly of several well-known deniers, including Fred Singer. Fred Singer is a physicist with a long career as a denier on every environmental and public health issue of the last half century for which government regulation threatened to become (and eventually was) a solution[2]. Singer argued in the 1960s that cigarette smoking did not cause cancer, authoring pseudoscientific reports for the tobacco industry to cast doubt on all the reports written by the panels of scientists which concluded that cigarettes did cause cancer. Now he is an author of the “NIPCC Report”, the parallel pseudoscientific report on climate. (I have a copy on my desk at the office; the sponsors seem to have sent a copy to every climate scientist whose mailing address they could obtain.) The speaker urged the audience to read the NIPCC report.

When the talk was over and it was time for questions, a couple of the other scientists in the room challenged the speaker with questions and comments that clearly indicated disagreement, but were stated fairly calmly. I raised my hand after them, and stated my objections in an angry tone of voice. I told the speaker that if he believed there was something wrong with the entire peer-reviewed climate science literature (including the IPCC) – as he clearly did – then, this being a meeting of the American Physical Society, he should directly critique that scientific literature, instead of spending the majority of his time on children’s books, non sequiturs from Greenpeace signs, the results of google searches, and platitudes about the scientific method. I said that he should pick on someone his own size.

In the next post I will describe the second denialist talk that I heard, my response to it, and the conversation I had with the third denier in the hallway outside. Today I will just say that I showed visible anger in all three exchanges. While that anger was genuine, it was not so overpowering that I couldn’t have stayed quiet. I could have, and seriously considered doing so. My ultimate decision to respond in the way I did was conscious. I am still thinking about whether it was the right response. So far, I still think it was.

In the next post (or maybe the one after) I will try to articulate why I think this, but for now I recommend this article. The title is about “funders and foundations”, and I am neither, but the arguments apply more broadly.

[1] I no longer use the term “skeptics” to describe those who do not accept the basic conclusion of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists that humans are causing significant global warming. A skeptic is someone who needs to see all the evidence and consider it carefully before being convinced. I do not see how an intellectually honest person can deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming after carefully considering all the evidence. The only way I can see arriving at such a position is either to be unaware of the full body of evidence (intentionally or otherwise; but if someone with a public profile on the issue is ignorant of the evidence, it has to be at least partly intentional), to deny the validity of that evidence (“climate scientists’ jobs, funding etc. depend on scaring the public about global warming, so I don’t believe what they say”), or to be unable or unwilling to use logic to draw conclusions. Taking a public position on the basis of any of these is not skepticism, it’s denial.


[2] Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, 2010, Bloomsbury.

The size of it

What a day yesterday.

adam march photo

The organizers are saying 400,000 people. That is an astonishing number, but it did seem an endless throng. It didn’t move at all for the first couple of hours; we were wondering what was going on. Afterwards, I read somewhere that people filled the entire 4-mile length of the route, so some had to finish before others could start.

A friend who didn’t march said right after that she had thought she wouldn’t fit in because it was all “climate scientists and ex-hippies”. I said that wasn’t what I had seen. Ok, there were a few of both for sure, but you don’t get to 400K with just those factions. Most of the crowd looked pretty civilian to me.

I read a quote from someone today (can’t remember who now, nor find it) to the effect that this was the biggest political demonstration about anything in the USA in a very long time. True, no doubt; what came closest? Can’t have been anything more recent than the last Iraq war, if that. Certainly, I can remember no show of feet like this in my adult lifetime on any “environmental issue”, let alone climate.

The mass of the thing was profoundly heartening, because ignorance and denial still loom so large on this issue in this country, and nothing else seems able make a dent in the hard core of it. We know that facts from the mouths of scientists (or anyone) are not going to cut any ice with those who get their information from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal op-ed page – which unfortunately includes about half of Congress – because if they could, they would have by now. The only thing that will matter is sheer force of numbers. We showed that we had that.

On a much smaller scale, I carried an intentionally nerdy and obscure sign (thanks for the idea Michela) to create teachable moments. Indeed maybe half a dozen people asked me what it meant, allowing me to explain the mechanics of carbon emissions scenarios and IPCC assessments to interested citizens. Here’s a photo of me explaining it to one of New York’s finest:


We ended the day exhausted but happy. It was a privilege and a great thrill to have been able to march. We made the kids come, figuring that someday they’d appreciate  having been there. In the event, they seemed to appreciate it right then. There’s hope yet.

First review ever

The first review of my book just appeared online, in the publishing trade magazine Kirkus. It’s gratifyingly positive. I know that, for multiple reasons, I shouldn’t get in the habit of reading reviews in the hope that they will make me feel happy. Nonetheless, this one did.

This being not just the first review of this book, but the first book review I’ve received in my life as an author, I am re-posting the whole thing here:

Sobel (Environmental Sciences and Applied Physics and Mathematics/Columbia Univ.) grapples with the “complex questions involving science, engineering, politics, and human psychology” that arose in Hurricane Sandy’s wake.

The author, who spends much of his time at Columbia studying climate and extreme weather, looks to Hurricane Sandy as a good example to help explain the scientific modeling that predicted the hurricane’s birth and path. Sandy was certainly an unusual event—in the past 150 years of keeping weather records, no hurricane has made the fast left turn she did—and Sobel wants readers to comprehend Sandy as both a specific phenomenon and within the global picture, to understand the nature of Sandy and the atmospheric forces at play, which means a considerable dip into physics, meteorology and climatology. That dip turns out to be gratifying, as the author provides a readable introduction to patterns in the global atmosphere, their changes and the influence they have on weather events. Once through this basic course, which includes forays into hurricane science, winter weather and the history of forecasting, readers will walk away with a handle on the dynamics of weather systems. Sobel uses music to help explain coherent patterns applicable to weather, and he delivers approachable discussions of the Fujiwhara effect (“Two giant entities in the atmosphere, dangerous and powerful but elemental…normally solitary, each doing its own thing, engage with each other”) and other phenomena. For tonal color, Sobel ends his examination of Sandy with a look at the Occupy movement and its role in recovery from the storm. He then shifts to a satisfying survey of updates and clarifications on the climate change front (including the vexing water-vapor issue) and the evolution of risk-management barriers and preventative measures.

An engaged and engaging examination of “what current science allows us to say (or does not) about Sandy’s relation to human-induced climate change.”

Emotional outburst due to lack of atmospheric one

I am currently frustrated, as it seems I often am, by the current display on our local weather radar. It has been unseasonably hot and humid here in New York City for about a week. Now, the climax that we residents of the humid eastern US habitually look forward to after waiting through such steamy periods is in sight. A solid line of thunderstorms (some of them severe) is stretching across Jersey and just south of the city. To get there it had to pass through NYC, but as it did it developed a gap, which we were in. We got jack diddly, at least here in northern Manhattan.

The cold front will pass through this evening regardless, and the heat will break – presumably for good, as we head into fall. And there’s a chance of more thunderstorms later. But still, I feel cheated.






Climate according to Obama

The New York Times has an article today on an initiative by President Obama’s team of climate negotiators towards a new international “accord” to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The word “accord” rather than “treaty” indicates that the Senate would not be expected to ratify it – as it has not ratified any climate treaty, including the original 1997 Kyoto protocol – and thus it would not be legally binding under the Constitution. The accord would be “politically binding”, meaning the President would make the commitment himself on behalf of the US, with the understanding if we fail to adhere to it we will look bad. The article uses the phrase “name and shame” to describe the punishment for signing on and then violating the accord.

This is simultaneously encouraging and depressing. But the depressing is old while the encouraging is new, so I’m choosing to see the glass half full today.

That the President is even thinking about something like this – and that other countries’ representatives are willing to seriously talk about it with him – indicates the sad state of international climate negotiations, and the US’ primary role in bringing that sad state about. There would have been difficulties even if there had been strong US leadership over the last 20 years; but there has been no such leadership (to put it mildly) and that has pretty much guaranteed failure.

The US’ passivity has been due largely to the obstacle of Senate ratification, starting with Kyoto – under President Clinton, the US signed that treaty, but the Senate didn’t ratify it. Actually Clinton never submitted it to the Senate, because it was already clear it wouldn’t fly. A resolution had been passed unanimously stating that the Senate shouldn’t ratify any treaty that didn’t have binding targets for developing nations as well as developed ones. Kyoto asked for participation only from developing countries, which emitted by far the most greenhouse gases. The US was at that time the world’s top emitter (and continued to be until 2007, when China took over).

The possibility of getting a binding treaty through the US Senate has only dimmed in recent years. The Republican party has moved strongly backward on climate; the positions of most in the GOP range between silence and outright flat-earth denialism. And Obama, until fairly recently, had chosen to spend his political capital on other issues. The President said very little about climate in his first term.

So the present effort represents an attempt by Obama to do something that he can actually do on climate. This follows other recent efforts, including pushing forward with the EPA regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

The article quotes one developing country leader to the effect that this initiative is bad because what the world really needs is for the US to ratify a legally binding treaty. Surely true, but the world needs a lot of things it is not going to get any time soon. We could wish for more from the President – stopping the Keystone pipeline for example – but given recent history I find today’s story heartening. The US has been such a hindrance to international progress on climate that any forward motion coming from our federal government should be cheered on.


Hello world

This is a new blog by me, Adam Sobel. I’m an atmospheric scientist. I study weather and climate as a professor at Columbia University. In that day job, I write research articles for other scientists (you can find a list here).

In recent years, I have begun to do more writing for popular audiences as well. The most prominent example of this is my upcoming book, Storm Surge, to be published by Harper-Collins on October 14, 2014. This is a book about Hurricane Sandy – and other topics that are connected to it in some way – intended for popular audiences.

This blog is an experiment. I don’t know exactly what I will write for it or how often. I will almost certainly write posts related to the book. Probably some also about current weather events. Maybe some commentary on media stories about climate change. Maybe some material about my research or that of other scientists.

I did do one blog before, with a few colleagues, for a few months, while we were involved in a field experiment in the Maldives, to study a weather phenomenon called the Madden-Julian oscillation (MJO). That is at maddenjulianconversation.blogspot.com. There will be some resemblance, but I’m going to be the only writer on this one, and the range of topics will be much broader.

That’s it for now.