In a special to the Washington Post Oliver Uberti opines that “Trust in meteorology has saved lives. The same is possible for climate science”. The former senior design editor for the National Geographic and co-author of three critically acclaimed books of maps and graphics does an excellent job tracing the history of weather forecasting and mapping. Unfortunately he leaps to the conclusion that because meteorological forecasting has worked well and we now “have access to ample climate data and data visualization that gives us the knowledge to take bold actions”.
“The long history of weather forecasting and weather mapping shows that having access to good data can help us make better choices in our own lives. Trust in meteorology has made our communities, commutes and commerce safer — and the same is possible for climate science.”
I recommend reading most of the article. He traces the history of weather observations and mapping from 1856 when the first director of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry, started posting the nation’s weather on a map at its headquarters. Eventually he managed to persuade telegraph companies to transmit weather reports each day and eventually he managed to have 500 observers reporting. However, the Civil War crippled the network. Increase A. Lapham, a self-taught naturalist and scientist proposed a storm-warning service that was established under the U.S. Army Signal Office in 1870. Even though the impetus was for a warning system, it was many years before the system actually made storm warning forecasts. Uberti explains that eventually the importance of storm forecasting was realized, warnings made meaningful safety contributions, and combining science with good communications and visuals “helped the public better understand the weather shaping their lives and this enabled them to take action”.
Then Uberti goes off the rails:
“The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005. And as sea surface temperatures have risen, so have the number of tropical cyclones, as well as their size, force and saturation. In fact, many of the world’s costliest storms in terms of property damage have occurred since Katrina.”
“Two hundred years ago, a 10-day forecast would have seemed preposterous. Now we can predict if we’ll need an umbrella tomorrow or a snowplow next week. Imagine if we planned careers, bought homes, built infrastructure and passed policy based on 50-year forecasts as routinely as we plan our weeks by five-day ones.”
“Unlike our predecessors of the 19th or even 20th centuries, we have access to ample climate data and data visualization that give us the knowledge to take bold actions. What we do with that knowledge is a matter of political will. It may be too late to stop the coming storm, but we still have time to board our windows.”
It is amazing to me that authors like Uberti don’t see the obvious difference between the trust the public has in weather forecasts and misgivings about climate forecasts. Weather forecasts have verified their skill over years of observations and can prove improvements over time. Andy May’s recent article documenting that the Old Farmer’s Almanac has a better forecast record, for 230 years, than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has for 30 years suggests that there is little reason the general public should trust climate forecasts. The post includes a couple of figures plotting IPPC climate model projections with observations that clearly disprove any notion of model skill.
Sorry, the suggestion that passing policy based on 50-year climate science forecasts is somehow supported by the success of weather forecast models is mis-guided at best.
Roger Caiazza blogs on New York energy and environmental issues at Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York. This represents his opinion and not the opinion of any of his previous employers or any other company with which he has been associated.