An article came to my attention today that epitomizes my frustration with everyone assuming that all extreme weather events are associated with climate change. I have been meaning to vent on this issue so here I go.
I have two degrees in meteorology, am a retired certified consulting meteorologist accredited by the American Meteorology Society, and have over 40 years experience as a practicing meteorologist. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
The article that piqued my interest was titled: “Con Edison to install 17 weather stations across New York; largest tower slated for Staten Island”. The quote that wound me up was the following:
“Climate change makes smart infrastructure planning and design essential,” said Charles Viemeister, Con Edison’s project manager. “We’ll use data from the Micronet to gain additional insight into the local short-term and longer-term impacts of climate change. We are always looking for technologies that can help us maintain the resilient, reliable service our customers need.”
My first issue is the implicit inference in this quote and elsewhere in the article that the primary value of these meteorological stations has something to do with climate change when in reality the value is for evaluation of weather events. Weather is not climate! One way to think of it is: Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.
The reality is that adding 17 weather stations to the 126 stations in the NYS Mesonet system and providing that data to the public will be used to address the weather we get today. It will strengthen the ability of meteorologists to provide real-time analyses and short-term forecasts of extreme weather events that can cause power outages. Con Edison will be able to provide better responses with this finer-scale resolution information. This is a good thing and I applaud the project.
On the other hand, these data are not suitable for climate trend analyses to determine what we can expect. In order to assess climatic trends, the meteorological data collected must be from a representative location. By that I mean it cannot be affected by anything local that could change the trend of temperature, winds or precipitation measurements. Frankly, that is always difficult to do and in New York City nearly impossible to do well enough to be able to tease out the climate signal. For example, an ideal location for measuring temperature trends would be in a field surrounded by at least 100 feet of mown grass. As long as the grass does not become overgrown with shrubs and trees, planted with different crops or, worst of all, paved over for a parking lot then changes to the measured temperatures over time are the result of a climate signal. Of course, in the city keeping everything that can affect the measurements constant is much more difficult.
This story opens a scab of mine related to the constant conflation of any extreme weather event with climate change. In the headlines this week are the wildfires in California and Oregon. California Governor Newsom vows to face climate change head on fighting the wildfires. CNN claims that the warming climate is going to make things worse. Of course in this politically charged year others claim climate change is not the primary factor and argue for other causes. As a meteorologist I can only argue with any kind of authority about the climate data. The satellite observations show a decreasing trend in global wildfires and the data show high temperatures in the past too. Ultimately, wildfires have always been a problem in California. Finally another meteorologist looked at what caused the fires in Oregon and Washington and concluded that climate change was not a factor. I expect he would have made the same conclusion if he looked at the California situation. In my experience, every time (here, here, and here for example) I have looked at some weather event that is claimed to be related to climate change I have been unable to find any real evidence supporting the claim and plenty of evidence to argue otherwise.
The constant refrain that every extreme weather event is “proof” that climate change is happening now bothers me because the claims are used to justify the need to change the energy system. In fact, were it not for the climate emergency do we really need to change the energy system? Worse is the fact that the transition to a green economy diverts resources better spent to adapt and strengthen infrastructure for extreme weather observed in the past. For example, if a storm exactly like tropical storm Sandy were to occur again would we be able to weather the storm with minimal impacts? If not then we are doing something wrong.