Wednesday, August 19, 2015

El Niño - "Godzilla" or just another actor?

It seems this year is another in a lengthening string of occasions when El Nino (more properly, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation that includes La Nina) becomes a big media story, anticipating how it will affect the weather during this coming winter.  The developing El Nino this year may be at record or near-record intensity, which could magnify its impacts on the weather, so even a respected oceanographer felt compelled to describe it with the adjective "Godzilla" during a media interview.  Of course, the media grabbed onto this label with its typical overblown enthusiasm.  Shades of "Snowmageddon" and "Frankenstorm"!!

The "Godzilla El Nino" has become the focus for some controversy in the scientific community, however.  Many meteorologists dislike the use of such hyperbole, preferring that the public face of our science be more restrained, as scientists try to be when communicating with their colleagues.  Others feel that the use of such language helps get the message of science across to the lay public.  A well-written science story doesn't need bombastic language to get its message across - in fact, it can be argued that such excesses muddy the clarity of the message.

I've made no secret that I'm not among the supporters of wildly dramatic language.  First of all, an unintended consequence could be the creation of unnecessary fear in some folks regarding what could become an impending disaster.  Another unintended consequence is public pushback against the "hype" such terminology creates - some segments of the public are sick of all the "gloom and doom" the media convey about upcoming weather events.  There's no hard evidence that the use of such hyperbolic terminology does anything to attract more attention to the message that scientists are trying to convey, nor is there evidence to suggest that the purely factual information content of that scientific message is conveyed more effectively to the consumers as a result of the inflated descriptions.  If the claim is made that melodramatic terminology is actually an aid to effective communication, the burden of proof is on those who make such claims.  Let there be a carefully-done survey that demonstrates this is indeed the effect of sensational verbiage.  Absent that, count me among the skeptics!

Furthermore, and more importantly, it's pretty bad science to equate the strength of a given El Nino to specific weather events or seasonal weather trends at a specific location.  ENSO is just one among a host of global and regional climate "oscillations" that are all operating concurrently.  How this year's El Nino affects the global weather pattern is determined by the complex interaction among all the known oscillations that influence the weather pattern, to say nothing of factors affecting global weather about which we scientists know little or nothing. It's been shown, for instance, that snowfall in Washington DC can be at or near record levels during a strong El Nino, but can also be near zero during a strong El Nino.  By itself, El Nino is not a good predictor of local, seasonal weather patterns.  To create all this brouhaha about this year's El Nino is just bad meteorology and conveying a message that is not justified by the science. 

A more rational approach would be to indicate that an intense El Nino, which is what this year's event is likely to be, could create serious impacts, for which some segments of our society would need to prepare in advance.  It would be important to indicate that this is not a statement of absolute certainty, or even close to that level of confidence.  Rather, it suggests one potentially important development among many possibilities, but the likelihood is high enough that it deserves to be mentioned as a possibility - it is not a forecast for a "Godzilla" creating widespread havoc and destruction, but something that might require some advance planning for that possibility.  Do we really need to "hype" an event to get people to understand our message so that they take appropriate actions?  If so, then we can blame the media, but we also might have to share the responsibility for failing to state our message in clear and understandable terms.  The consumers of media (Aren't we all?) have been desensitized, perhaps, by all the sensationalism.  But that's another topic ...