Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fallout from Sandy

A while back, I posted a long rant about the process that results in "Service Assessments" from NOAA/NWS.  The idea of learning from the past is a good one, but the process by which this is done has been flawed for decades.

 In the wake of "Superstorm" Sandy, we are beginning to hear some complaints about the service provided the NWS warnings.  A service assessement is going to be done.  Some people seem to think that the warnings should have been hurricane warnings, even though the storm that made landfall was no longer being recognized as a tropical storm by the National Hurricane Center.  I'm reminded of some ill-conceived notions that have held sway in some NWS offices in the past that tornado warnings should be issued for really dangerous non-tornadic storms, just because it was felt that recipients of the warnings would be more likely to react than if they were "just severe thunderstorm warnings"!

It's my firm belief that lying to the public is not something that will turn out well for the NWS in the long run.  Part of the issue is that we humans see things in categorical "boxes" - tornadoes in one box, severe thunderstorms in another - tropical cyclones in one box, extratropical storms in another.  A lot of effort is expended in trying to get reality to fit in those neat little boxes.  Unfortunately, the atmosphere knows nothing of our categories and classifications.  The atmosphere just produces weather, and it's up to us to try to understand it, forecast it, and communicate information about it to the public as best we can.

The facts are that the storm known as "Sandy" was well-anticipated many days in advance, including the transition from a tropical to an extratropical storm about the time when the storm would make landfall.  The forecasts and warnings were for high winds, heavy rain, and a potentially dangerous storm surge - which is pretty much exactly what the storm produced!  Should it really matter to the public what label we assign to the storm?  If the public has that perception and would have been more likely to respond if it had been called a hurricane, then in my view, it's not the forecasts and warnings that are to blame for any shortfall in response.  It's a dismal failure to communicate to the public the reality posed by natural hazards.  Hurricanes are not the only meteorological threat to people living in coastal areas.

It's been my experience that most people around the world are dangerously ignorant of the threats they face from natural hazards.  Far too many people have faith in the comforting falsehood that bad events can't happen to them, so there is no need to prepare for such things.  Far too few people recognize the discomforting reality that their sense of security is an illusion, and so prepare accordingly.  Ignorance of the possibility of life-threatening events (tornadoes, flash floods, tropical storms, etc.) is not bliss - it can be a fatal mistake.  Is it the government's responsibility to look out for everyone's personal safety?  Goverment agences like the NWS do as much as they can to warn people when threatening weather is possible.  Most of the time, most people are unaffected (these are rare events, after all!).  But then those same people choose to gripe and complain when they receive a warning and nothing happens to them personally.  It's as yet not possible to warn only those specific areas that will be affected most seriously, and it won't be possible any time soon.  Perfect forecasts are simply not possible.  We can never be absolutely certain - but the forecasts and warnings for Sandy were pretty damned good!!

The "cry wolf" syndrome no doubt affects how the public perceives weather warnings, but I believe that by far the most important factor when people choose to ignore warnings is the so-called "normalcy bias".  People are ignorant enough to believe that if they've never experienced something in their short lives, then that "something" is just not possible.  They just can't believe that something bad is about to happen to them - personally!!  Hence, they simply choose to ignore the warnings and to do nothing to prepare.

In the wake of the complaining about Sandy, there almost certainly will be some response by NOAA/NWS bureaucrats.  Almost certainly, they will cave in to the pressure to call extratropical storms (or storms in transition) "hurricanes" in order to placate the fools who are now griping about the forecasts for Sandy.  Almost certainly, this capitulation to public pressure will come back to haunt them.  The service assessment coming out of this almost certainly will be flawed, at least in part for reasons discussed in my rant (linked above).  Having Mike Smith of Accuweather be on the team will almost certainly be a big mistake - he has his own agenda of self-promotion first and foremost on his mind (which is always the case) and he'll be empowered to influence the findings in a way that matches his agenda.  This likely will not be in best interest of NOAA/NWS.

CORRECTION ... it seems that Mike Smith and other non-government members have been left off the service assessment team. I had not seen the latest information before posting this.  See my comment on this blog.

I see what's going on with a sense of frustration.  And it's not limited to the USA, or the East Coast.  I see it happening over and over around the world.  Giving the public what they think they want isn't always the right thing to do.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What goes around, comes around!

It seems, from what I read on the interwebs, that the American Petroleum Institute (API) is asking for federal aid to mitigate the effects of "warming-induced" drought on Mississippi River barge traffic (which carries a lot of petroleum products, of course).  Without that help, they say they'll have to use more expensive transportation methods.

The notion that the current drought has been caused by, or deepened by the effects of global warming is pretty arguable, as I've noted in a recent blog.  However, it doesn't take a genius to see a connection between rising temperatures and the likelihood of drought - the physical linkage is much more obvious than between, say, increasing temperatures and tornado/hurricane frequencies or intensities.  But let's put aside for the moment the issue of whether or not the current global warming trend (which is, according to climate scientists, directly attributable to greenhouse gas emissions from burning of fossil fuels) has "induced" the current drought.

The irony is  that the API has been, and is continuing to be, a force for the "business as usual" crowd who choose to deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming and to work to prevent any activity that could wean us from our dependence on fossil fuels - see here for the API's stand on renewable energy research.  It would seem that corporate America (especially the petroleum industry and its partners) is not interested in seeing us give up our addiction to fossil fuels any time soon.  Imagine that!!  What a surprise!!  Nevertheless, they now want to be bailed out by the government so they won't have to pass the increased cost of transportation of their products on to the American public, who no doubt will howl in protest over having to pay more at the pump! Oh yes, make no mistake, they will pass on that added cost, rest assured.  And all of us will have to ante up. 

Of course, the rich corporate CEOs will continue to live the good life, and likely will escape having to pay most of the tax burden their policies will force on us inevitably.  They'll probably get bonuses for their mismanagement!

Let me try to explain something ... fossil petroleum products of all sorts (oil, coal, natural gas) are only available in finite quantities.  They cannot last forever.  That's an inescapable consequence of their finite quantity.  If our rate of consumption is some very tiny fraction of what is a very large quantity, then we might anticipate continuing to consume for a long time to come.  Of course, this would only be delaying the inevitable time when we eventually will have consumed almost all of that resource.  This is precisely what we're doing, notably beginning in the 20th century, when our transportation and energy production infrastructure came to be almost exclusively dominated by fossil fuel use.  And that is continuing to contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.  Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases entirely (not very likely at any time soon!), those gases already in the atmosphere will continue to add to a global temperature rise for many years to come!

At the beginning of the 20th century, our consumption rate was small and the resource appeared to be vast.  As our rate of consumption increased (more cars, more highways, less use of rail, etc.), what may have looked at the time as an almost inexhaustible resource began dwindling rapidly.  World wars (and lesser ones) proved to be greedy consumers of fossil fuels.  We are now past (or nearly so, depending on to whom you listen) the peak worldwide production of oil.  Its price is inevitably going to increase as the supply declines.  China is exploding as a first world consumer, as is India.  All nations aspiring to first world status are simply adding billions of consumers of what must now be seen as a dwindling, very much finite resource.

As a species and as a nation, we've squandered the natural resource of fossil fuel, which could have been used more wisely to put us on a path toward renewable energy in the future.  But American corporations dominate American politics in today's world, and they've lined up almost uniformly in the "business as usual" camp, seeking to block any efforts to wean us from our addiction to fossil fuel.  Among other things, this has widened the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in our society.  Corporate CEOs reward themselves with huge bonuses and live in luxurious splendor, even as the middle class is drifting toward poverty and the economy is tilting toward an ultimate collapse - and the global climate is warming.  Combined with the dwindling fossil fuel resources and associated energy cost increases, it's possible to foresee an imminent complete collapse of the existing American lifestyle.  That would be one form of "solution" to our existing challenges.  The transition will be very ugly with human suffering ... can we  stick our heads into the sand and just pretend that all is grand (from Steppenwolf "The Ostrich")?

Anyone not growing their own food, making their own clothing, and living "off the grid" in the wild is contributing to the problem, of course - that includes yours truly.  But that doesn't negate the fact that some are more responsible for this mess than others.  Those who have opposed the findings and recommendations global climate science, those who have participated in the corporate domination of the American government to prevent almost all efforts to move us off ground zero toward independence from fossil fuel, those who have opposed government support for research into renewable energy ... they bear the lion's share of the guilt.  And now they have the monumental gall to ask the government to bail them out for a problem they have worked very hard to create!!