Global Warming, Super El Ninos and Ultra La Ninas: An Expert Explains

Note: Over the last two weeks, I’ve conducted an interview with a mentor of mine, Bill Patzert, a meterologist and oceanographer with JPL. I’ve never met Bill, and only talked to him a few times on the phone, and I don’t even remember why exactly I first contacted him years ago, but he’s been hugely helpful and has become a real friend nonetheless.

I was thrilled when he agreed to be interviewed at length by me for Grist. Please check it out. If you have any interest in the climate of the Pacific Coast and the Southwest, I think you’ll be glad you did. Here we go…

    To a layperson, the world of climatology can be an intimidatingly foreign land. Denizens of this world, known as scientists, speak a daunting, often-impenetrable blend of acronyms (AGW, IPCC, WPAC, ENSO), Latinisms (anomalies, coterminous, precipitation deficits) and math (confidence limits, regression-based, boundary knots).

Besides the sheer complexity of global climate systems, the dreariness of this jargon may be one of the big reasons the general public has been slow to awaken to the seriousness of the threat of global warming. In fact, a conference on climate change organized by Yale last year called for "training scientists to
speak in language that is understandable to different
audiences."

One scientist who needs no such training is Bill Patzert, an oceanographer and meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, an institution closely linked to NASA. In the world of science, Patzert is known for his work matching TOPEX satellite weather data to the actual behavior of the Pacific Ocean and its weather systems, especially El Nino and its less-well-known counterpart La Nina. In the media world he is a go-to guy for comments on weather patterns for the LA Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and CBS News, among many others.

Patzert, who has briskly guided my reporting on climate questions for years, generously agreed to an extended email interview for Grist. Since he has become  known for his work with the media, and even won medals for his outreach efforts, I thought I’d begin with a question about why the rhetoric of climatology is so turgid and difficult. His answer was more than I bargained for:   

Bill_patzert_as_cnn_newsman

2 thoughts on “Global Warming, Super El Ninos and Ultra La Ninas: An Expert Explains

  1. I’m with you.

    Correlating data and the environment in support of what we “know in our bones” to be true is an ever difficult task, and those that do it professionally in face of interests that prefer the public remain complacent are the unsung prophets of our time. Tomorrow their swansong may simply say “we told you so”, and perhaps the public will still prefer to feel victim of unfare circumstances – it could have been responsible and knew it should have been, but… In environmental science it’s much easier to know about change than to know absolute quantities. For instance, in western Ontario this summer I say there were virtually no mosquitos because I got only two bites in a couple of weeks of being outside (even at twilight) – but I couldn’t tell you how many there were or weren’t, just that there were a lot less. So I say something drastically changed as a qualitative statement, but my assertion can be shot down by anyone who says if I don’t know the absolute numbers I don’t know anything. I think the climate guys have been fighting that line in the public debate, and they are more vulnerable when working with models. Remember plate tectonics was considered a wild idea 40 years ago and now it’s pretty much accepted along with the round earth – but it’s been 40 years. Climate change is a natural systems parade our government doesn’t want to see, hear, or feel even as we’re being marched under by it – yet each of us plays a role in fueling the parade and can make our own decisions about contributing to it. And that’s a worthwhile story because we don’t have 40 years to react.

    -Bill

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  2. I consider scientists such as Patzert, Hansen, Mann, Cook and many others to be heroes, but their research and warnings (not all of which are based on GCMs) haven’t gotten the coverage they deserve, I think, partly because of the nature of traditional journalism. Reporters usually report on what just happened, not on what might happen, even if what might happen (say, abrupt climate change) is really far more newsworthy than what just happened (another sunny day).

    There is some evidence that that is beginnning to change; for example, the Weather Channel just launched a show with a climatologist, which they are promoting assiduously. And it certainly helps that powerful opinion leaders like Arnold Schwarzenneger and Al Gore are focusing attention on this issue. But I’m hoping that someday climatology papers are taken as seriously as, say, intelligence estimates of threat levels. That’s going to take some time and a lot of work.

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