Weather man

A leading climatologist started talking about the weather, and we listened

An accompanying, shorter article to this interview is published as “Window to the world” in RN&R’s Green section.

When I first arranged an interview with the Desert Research Institute’s Dr. Kelly Redmond, I was told I’d have about 20 minutes with him. We spoke for nearly two hours. I suppose I could have cut him off. But when the deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center—one of six such centers in the nation— starts talking about climate change, I thought it’d be a good idea to listen.

Here’s Dr. Redmond on the science and psychology of global warming, population, reality and perception in the West and beyond.

What would climate change in Nevada look like, and are we seeing it now?

I think we probably are [seeing it now]. In terms of what it would look like, we don’t know what all the dimensions are. The primary thing would be the warming. When you say right “now,” out the window, this minute, you might not see it each and every moment looking out the window, or you might not recognize it. But if you look at the various temperature records for the state of Nevada taken in different ways, with different kinds of observational equipment or procedures, they do point to a warming in the state.

These records we have [are from] over the past hundred years or so. Another thing is, there’s a lot bigger difference at night. Nighttime has been getting warmer around the state quite a bit more than daytime maxes have. So more of this warming we’ve been seeing over the past 30 years or so has been while we’re asleep rather than awake.

When you think about climate change, most people use the term “global warming,” as in temperature. But in association with changes in temperature, this leads to changes in circulation patterns on the Earth. This would probably move storm systems around and cause changes in things like wind and other climate elements. Temperature and precipitation are the two main things people think about with weather and climate. And wind, if you live in Nevada. Then there’re things more global, which have an affect on us. There are things happening in the world ocean system, the polar ice caps, basically everywhere else on Earth. It’s the kind of thing where you check to see the effects in your backyard. That’s what people wonder: “Do I see it in my neighborhood?” But if you track those changes in your backyard, to understand them you may have to go a long way. Your backyard is a determinant of your backyard, but so is all of Nevada, so is the Northern Hemisphere. All those factors come into play and cause your backyard to be what it is. That’s how tied together the global climate system is.

But how do we know if we can attribute these events we see in our backyard, or on the news, to climate change?

If you want an analogy of how it might be experienced, the best example I can come up with is aging. Do people notice themselves getting older? You might notice when someone other than you or me starts getting older, but how do they notice that? Not usually day by day. It’s every now and then something happens that reminds you of that—a new creak, a wrinkle, things you can’t do at parties that you used to … We notice these things in bits and pieces.

It’s a question I’ve always been thinking about over the past 20 years or so: Would you notice this just looking out the window? What would it take before it would finally dawn on you, without any instruments or news articles? Would you notice it just by yourself living in a cabin in the middle of Nevada? My general answer is most people wouldn’t. You’d have to be an astute observer, writing things down about when plants bloom or about cold snaps and warm spells. Most people don’t notice averages.

So if June of this month turns out to be 1 degree warmer than June of last year will you notice? One degree is a lot for climate. So we’re reliant on other information coming in to tell us this other than our own physical senses. But our own physical senses and personal observations will say, “When I was a kid, it used to get down to 21 below.” And now you notice it only gets to 19 below or maybe 10 below.

There’s a common impression that people expect the warm to warm up, that each and every day will be warmer than the previous one, that it’s a constant march upward. Whereas in reality, if you go back and look at what climate has brought to Northern Nevada over the past few decades, and you add more to that … We still have the ups and downs of climate that are just a natural part of climate. The way climate change would be experienced is through weather, and that’s what plays out day by day by day. So climate is the whole movie, and weather is each day in the movie. At the end we have a movie, but we might not realize we’re in a movie when we’re in it. It’s one of these things that’s hard to see while we’re inside it. …

If you look at climate as an unfolding series of events, which we label as weather, how would you notice whether weather is changing or not? Maybe through temperature, for example. So we’ve just gone through a pretty cool spring. The temperatures have hardly changed at all in the last 90 days—we’ve just been flat. Except today [interview conducted Thursday, June 9] and the rest of June is supposed to really be like June. Spring supposedly happened sometime along the way there. The idea we will not see cold snaps and things we’re used to on the cold side, and that all climate warming consists of is just an onward perpetual rise not abbreviated with other fluctuations—it just doesn’t ring right.

If you look around the United States, it’s showing itself more in the Western states rather than the eastern parts. The Southeast has shown little temperature changes. ..

But we’re seeing lots of big weather events and natural disasters in the East, Midwest and South.

Now people are looking. When we became aware of El Nino, everything that happens is El Nino. Then we discover something new, and everything is ascribed to that. So climate change is a big subject on a lot of minds. ..

So you don’t think those big events were due to climate change?

Without climate change, there will be a bunch of those events anyway—floods, and droughts, wind storms, high humidity, low humidity, thunderstorms and lightening. It’s been doing that for eons, and it will continue to. Superimposed on that will be some slight trends and changes in direction—and they might be quite noticeable after enough time, which is measured in a decade or two or longer. But what if your house thermostat was turned up one degree per year, and you do that year after year, like a lobster getting boiled in water—it’s how people see slow change. The slow change may actually take place as a course of actual slow changes and episodic large changes.

We’d have the things always going on with climate, and then superimposed on that are slowly increasing other things we haven’t seen before. The combination of those processes is you’ll see something you haven’t seen before, because a normal [event] will have an extra oomph to it. If all the sea level is going up—which it is because of climate change—once in a while those waves will get further inland. It happens episodically, not each and every day. …

This winter, we had a strong La Nina, one of the strongest on record. It’s a phenomenon on the ocean in the middle of the Pacific—essentially the opposite of El Nino. Because we had a La Nina this year, we get dry winters in the West. Arizona and New Mexico had tremendously dry winters because of La Nina. So the dryness there is normal. It’s quite in character with La Nina in the winter for the southern part of the West to be dry. That’s the usual thing. This is an unusual La Nina now. Where it’s normally dry, Southern California had a lot of precipitation this year. And the drought in Texas and the fires there—there’s a high likelihood these are caused by La Nina. They also had a warm winter, which may come from a lack of storms and not getting clouds, so there were warmer winters. But there could be a component of the warming, which is associated by global things bigger than El Nino and La Nina, which are only one or two times the size of the U.S., which is only a fraction of the globe. El Nino and La Nina is just warming up and cooling off the top layer of the ocean. The depth of the water affected –if you go from Reno to the airport to the hill out of North Valleys, you’re rising 500-600 feet to go over the lip of the Truckee Meadows; that’s about the depth of the area that warms and cools off with El Nino and La Nina. Imagine that as a swimming pool filled with water. We heat it up by 2 or 3 degrees C. Cover the whole U.S. in a depth like that and try heating and cooling that up. There’s a lot of energy there.

So El Nino and La Nina are natural weather processes, whereas global warming has to do with trapped greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

Not just carbon dioxide. … Humans put in lots of greenhouse gases and particles, too, which work in opposite directions. The pollution we see on Earth reflects away more radiation than it absorbs. So haze in the atmosphere cools climate, and the counteracting force is greenhouse gas, which acts to warm the climate. There isn’t much doubt about the greenhouse effect. Then there’s the odd volcano that cools us off for a year or two. And tiny variations in the sun. But those are only one-tenth of one percent of the energy earth runs off of. …

You look at the projections people are making about climate. If you double the amount of CO2 in the air, it warms up the Earth 4, 5, maybe even 6 F. That number came out in late 1976s, and it’s about the same as it is today [with all of our modern technology]. … We toss all this complexity in there, and we end up with projections not greatly different from the first ones that came out 40 or 50 years ago, which is kind of comforting, because people doing this think, “What if we’re wrong here?” Because we’re asking society to make changes, which aren’t cheap or easy to do. So where does this whole issue get its credibility?

Is it too late to reverse the effects of global warming?

… The deep ocean is really cold. It will take a long time to warm it all up, so we only get part of the response right away. But once we put absorbers in the atmosphere, we can’t take them back out again. We can’t take the genie out of the bottle. The C02, once it’s there, it’s not going to go back out as fast as it went in. So we’ve made a commitment to some amount of warming in the future, and it’s a commitment we can’t really take back.

When we’re dealing with problems, like where the habits of your lifetime, the effects of them don’t become apparent until you’re older—if you don’t see the effects right away, you just keep doing what you’re doing. People are looking at, “Well, I don’t see it.” It’s a slowly accruing thing. If all these people are saying it’s going to warm up, the natural thing to do is say, “Let’s see if it’s warming up; they told us it was gonna.” But you have to wait awhile, and by the time you start really seeing it, in some ways it’s a little too late. Not too late for everything, but for a part of it.

So we take a hybrid route, saying at the beginning, “Maybe they do know what they’re talking about.” … It’s a huge psychological thing about how people work. Human beings have never faced the problem of their sheer existence, which is now 7 billion. … Earth has to come up with the resources to support all those people. They’re using resources, changing the atmosphere around the globe. There’s a lot of people who have a hard time of buying the notion that human beings are capable of changing the planet. “How can little ole me affect something as big as the Earth?” I can’t even visualize 7 billion people. This problem suffers from some of the abstraction that comes with it. Like, we’re only talking a couple of degrees, how can that matter? But it turns out the Earth is quite sensitive about these things. The difference between the Ice Age and non-Ice Age really is only about 6 or 7 degrees C [10-12 F]for the planet. For the Earth as a whole, a degree or two is a big deal.

How do you address global warming skepticism?

If you make a prediction that something is going to happen to a complicated system like the Earth and all the stuff that lives on it, you’ll see plenty of evidence that appears to point the other way. If we say it will warm up, we’ll get cold spells and snow storms, all the stuff we grew up with won’t go away, we’ll just see it less.

I’ve seen plenty of newscasts, where they’re talking about warming and meanwhile we’re treated to scenes of people shoveling snow. … It’s a question of numbers that we see less of that and more of the other at the end of the scale.

Oklahoma this year set an all-time state record for negative 31, and people say, “Well, see there, it’s not really happening.” And you can turn around and ask, “Well, what would it have done otherwise? It might have gotten down to -33.”

The greenhouse gases—those gases are there every moment of every day, and they’re having an affect on how radiation is moving through the atmosphere. They’re having that affect constantly even if we can’t understand the effects they’re having. These molecules are there, we know that and can measure it.

Unlike you and me, the atmosphere and physical quantities just can’t say no, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. Mother Nature is going to do what it’s going to do. I have a huge amount of respect for that, and it’s up to us to figure out what it’s going to do, and we do want to be right about this. When we don’t know, it’s like trying to predict the behavior of one of your friends. We’re pretty imperfect at that, even if we know them pretty well. If we only have one planet Earth we all depend on, what level of prudence do you exercise in case you got it wrong? It may be better than we thought; it may be worse.

This is how military minds look at security levels around the United States. … And climate is beginning—this is where wars and stuff stems from, the inability to cope with facets of the natural world mixed in with human things. It’s a prudence thing: Should we be careful? If we only have one airplane to fly 7 billion people, how much would we be taking it apart? These are difficult philosophical issues. But everyone can appreciate what they are.

What has led you to believe that yes, we are seeing the effects of climate change now?

The people investigating these things, we’re interested in the informational side of things. The city of Reno is warming up, but partly because the airport, where our main readings are taken, is in the center of town. … So we monitor in middle-of-nowhere places in Nevada. Think of a crime scene where the evidence is all circumstantial. There are no single smoking guns. There’s a bunch of pieces of evidence all pointing the same way, but individually, you can jab at them and tear them apart, but … Think of a coin flip, you could get 50-50 odds of whether it’s warming or cooling. There are 10 different ways of looking at temperature, and if they’re all landing on heads, you think “Maybe this coin isn’t quite 50-50.”

So to be sure, we look for independent evidence, like thermometers in Reno, natural thermometers, independent measures made by balloons that go up over Reno and around the world, the movement of animals and plants in different elevation zones. After a while, if it got warmer, things would start moving up the mountains. We have temperatures of rivers and lakes—a variety of natural thermometers. There’s a thing called the National Phenology Network, which deals with the timing of events. Like what time do lilacs bloom? … So there’s folks sending out cloned lilacs in certain settings to find out what time of year do lilacs bloom. And we’re seeing those changes from later spring to earlier spring. This year, we got snow all over the place in the mountains—one of the coldest springs in a long time. May was a cold May, and May 2010 was a little colder, but before that were some of the hottest Mays we had. It all gets into how accurate your memory was and what gets glossed over. Everybody has some impression of climate. Everybody relates to it; that’s what I like about it. There’s almost nobody not interested in the weather; it’s a universal thing. But if they say something—we’re saving history from all over the U.S. and world, we can check how often your perceptions are correct. You’re OK for a few years, but they get dim.

I remembered I couldn’t plant my tomatoes as early as I had in the past this year or last year, but I couldn’t remember the years before that.

We’ve had a bunch of warm Mays going back to 1998 or so—’98 was a cool one. The last decade or so has had things on the warm side of the ledger, not the cold.

But you will remember the year of the giant forest fire. On the fire issue in the West, to get a fire, if it’s warmer, fires love warm weather because the air is warmer and dries stuff out faster. So things are disposed to burn after a dry and warm winter. If you look at the Western U.S., the biggest fires in the history of the Western states have all been in the past 10 years—really giant fires. That’s somewhat governed by fire policy and accumulation of fuels—the decade of the ’80s was one of the wettest in the West’s history, so there was a lot of growth in that time; vegetation grows, then dries out, enabling big fires. We’ve had a lot of drought in the Western U.S. This year is a banner year for wet everywhere [in the West] except Arizona and New Mexico. There are huge snow packs now, and people say, “See, look at that snow pack. It’s proof it’s not happening.” … In Baltimore and Washington DC the winter before last, when there was a huge snowstorm, the biggest in their very long records, those very days were some of warmest days we’ve ever seen for that time of winter at the North Pole. You have to be careful interpreting the whole world from what you see out of your front window.

We see a lot of east-west difference in the United States. The Pacific Ocean is warming, but more on the western half than the eastern half. So if we have warming or changes in precipitation, it won’t be experienced everywhere, all at the same time. Complicating factors is we have oceans taking a long time to heat up and cool off. We do expect to see not just individual days or weeks or months, but maybe whole decades where Earth will temporarily cool off while on the way to warming. That’s not something you hear much. That’s in the climate models. Take climate models running out a hundred years from now. They will show in many of them there are random periods where the climate system get stuck and actually cools off in a model that has climate warming in it. No doubt about it, [staying within these models], 100 years from now, it’s a warm planet. But the best models show a period where it cools off for a while, usually because of something happening in the oceans. But eventually it gets caught up, and the energy imbalance is there every day. The planet is getting more energy from the sun than it’s shedding out into space. The checkbook is out of balance, but we don’t see where the money is going. And then you get a balance once in a while.

It seems that warming is more often seen in the little things, like pine beetles reproducing more often and devastating forests because it’s warmer longer. Can you give some concrete examples of signs of global warming you recognize?

We look for things in the natural world associated with warming. The beetle issue is interesting. There are two facets to it: These pine beetles, what often kills them each year is a cold snap. The temperature has to get down to around -40F for two or three days for some types of beetles. Why have we not seen beetle infestations of this size for the past hundred years? It’s the cold temps in each winter that kills beetles and hold them in check. If a factor that holds a population in check is released, then when they normally wouldn’t been killed, they live, so they can reproduce. And when the season gets long enough—spring comes earlier, fall comes later—this means they can get in more than one cycle of reproduction, which causes huge amount of beetles. Some of these beetles are able to get in a couple of cycles if a season gets long enough, so they can grow more. We’re seeing these beetle infestations that are huge. In Canada, they’ve crept north and jumped the continental divide, extending into boreal forest and down the East Coast. Some have jumped the divide and are in the early stages of heading into the plains in the far north, where before they couldn’t go. …

I look at thermometers, but you need to be skeptical of stuff. Everybody should be skeptical, frankly. We should be looking for corroborative evidence. If I believe something, how much will I go to the mat for that? We like to see multiple lines of evidence. We look for different types of thermometers. When I first saw western temperatures going up, I wasn’t sure I believed them. I thought maybe there was a problem with the thermometers—maybe they were in the wrong towns or exposed wrong. But I came across all this evidence that snowmelt is occurring one to three weeks earlier than 50 years ago—when snowmelt streams like the Truckee River jump up. We’re seeing snow melts happening earlier in stream gauges. We’re seeing lilacs and honeysuckles blooming earlier—there’s a network of people observing this for 50 years. That’s totally independent from thermometers. So when you convert the bloom dates into temperature units, it comes out to what the thermometers are saying, which gives me more confidence in the thermometers.

We measure freezing levels over Lake Tahoe every day. In the past 10-20 years, the [annual] freezing levels have gone up 300-400 feet, which may not sound like much, but temperature always cools off as you go up. So if it’s warmer, the freezing level will go up, and rain and snow level will go up, and that has consequences on the snow pack, which we in the West depend upon for our existence. People studying plants and animals—there are detailed surveys starting a hundred years ago on mice and voles and shrews and chipmunks, thorough surveys in the Sierra. They’ve redone those and found most of the animals have moved up in elevation [in the last 8 or 9 decades]. That’s something you wouldn’t notice day by day. Things like butterflies—most stay put in their own area—and their ranges have slowly been moving north.

All these bits and pieces of evidence, all these compasses, are basically pointing in the same direction. This is very much like solving a crime. There’s a standard of proof in criminology, and we should have some kind of standard of proof in our head for when we decide to believe something or not, and then are you willing to change your mind based on the evidence you see. I think most people’s minds can be changed by what we see. If we listen to what the world’s telling us, we’ll get it. The question is, will we get it fast enough?

If we see a warm spell, or big fires in Arizona, how much can we say this is global warming? We can never be sure. It’s a big complicated system. There are several reasons we could see big wildfires in Arizona. But if we start to see patterns like this, maybe it dawns on us that it’s not an isolated event. How do we add them up, how do we not lose our heads over it, and how do we not gloss it over?

People shout at us that the Earth is warming, and the planet is going to hell, and the environment is being degraded—all of which may be true. There’s such a list of problems we’re confronting, it’s like, are we ready for another one? And to some extent these are linked problems, and a great number of them trace back to the population explosion, which no one talk about. But people are weary about, “Oh gee whiz, now I have to get concerned about this.” How do you talk about these issues without unduly frightening people or beating them over the head on one hand and whistling in the dark on the other hand?

The whole Earth got into this problem bit by bit, and maybe that’s how we get out of it. We’ve never been good at dealing with things collectively because we’ve never had to.

China and India are starting to take over. They want to drive big cars like us. Rising work standards and stuff. It’s kind of a tragedy-of-the-commons issue. If we take the steps some people feel need to be taken, for a while we lose a competitive advantage because others will go on merrily as before and will win a little bit, but that winning is temporary. We look at politics, and we don’t think in long enough time frames: “I gotta get through tomorrow, and now you want me to think about a decade from now?”

People also wonder if these natural disasters are happening more often, or if it just seems that way because we’re more exposed to them through the various news media.

When we see more tornadoes, is it because we are conditioned to be looking for them? We have Doppler radar—there’s hardly a tornado that gets missed anymore. And we have instant communication, so we’re able to see more. If you look at natural phenomena in the last century, there’s been fantastic stuff happen: landslides, fires, every kind of natural disaster. If we’d seen it then we’d shout with our heads halfway off that the world is coming to an end. This stuff has been around for a long time, it’s just are we more conditioned to see it? We’re able to see it, we can get it on the news right away and make a big splash, and people are always interested in this dramatic stuff. This stuff has been happening for a long time. The question is, is it happening more, and what in nature has preserved records of this. Is it the looker or the lookee? It’s both.

But a positive side too, if we think something is going to happen, we might start looking a little earlier, and we could say “Oh, it’s part of a pattern.” If climate changes, we’ll see changes in temperature, in precipitation as a kind of a pattern. Are we seeing elements of that pattern? And precipitation in particular is really difficult, because it occurs only part of the time. Reno gets 51 days a year with precipitation. Only 1 out of 7 days bring in any. Another way of saying it is there’s 202 hours of precipitation in Reno a year, out of 8,760 hours in a year. About 97 percent of the time in Reno, it’s not raining.

We can see weird stuff happening and come to conclusions that you see more than you saw as a kid, but the web wasn’t there when you were a kid. But if you have an objective indicator of how many weird and wacky things are happening now compared to the past, it will help us pin down that answer. Are we changing and our ability to see things changing, or is the world changing? How do we develop the right sense of perspective?

So looking at natural disasters and wondering if they’re climate change isn’t an entirely off-base way to view it, but more it’s in the smaller things.

They probably all have a connection. Some may have a larger connection. If wacky, unusual things become a little more likely, we’ll see some strange and weird things because we’re looking more carefully, and there will be more of them. It might be a straw breaking the camel’s back but for a little extra pause, we wouldn’t have seen that thing, but it got a little extra push in how climate is changing, that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Reno has all these slot machines around town. Think of getting four of a kind. It’s not that unusual, but most people are surprised when it happens. So it comes up once every 423 times, but what if it comes up once every 300 times? How long would it take you to notice that? And how could you separate that from the ones you get anyway? These are the kinds of dilemmas we face in the statistical sense. Is the 99 degree reading you get from the normal ups and downs from climate extremes, or was it helped along from having more CO2 in the air? The answer is not a clear yes or no answer.