Friday, December 19, 2008

Global warming and severe storms--not so fast. . .

Phil Plait is at it again. In a post earlier today, he claims that a recent study gives strong evidence to support the idea that warming global temperatures are associated with more severe storms. This is an idea often cited by climate change alarmists, including AlGore, who claimed that Hurricane Katrina's destructiveness and power was definitely a product of global warming. One would have thought this idea was already well-founded, being part of the climate change litany for some time, but this recent data makes it double super-duper well-founded. Or does it?

The study (from JPL) shows that very high clouds, which are associated with severe weather, are more frequent when the ocean is warmer. The correlation they found was very strong; "for every degree Centigrade the oceans warm, they saw a 45% increase in the number of these clouds!" exclaims the BadAstronomer excitedly.

But there's nothing to get excited about. Despite the post claiming a link between global warming and severe storms, the study only shows a link between warming ocean temperatures and high altitude clouds. I'm not sure how strong the association is between high clouds and severe weather, but the equation is warmer ocean = more high clouds, not warmer ocean = more high clouds = more severe storms. And there is a world of difference.

Even Plait admits that linking clouds, rain, and global warming is incredibly difficult because rain is very difficult to model. But that's okay: "This new result bypasses that, using the clouds as a proxy for storms." That's a pretty big leap right there--I'm not sure that you can just "proxy" your results that way. There may be a whole lot of influences and variables that we haven't uncovered yet between the high clouds and the severe storms part of the equation. There's even evidence that the hurricane forming region in the Atlantic is actually cooling down.

It kind or reminds me of the development of fetal heart rate monitoring in obstetrics back in the 1970's. It made perfect sense to think that if we could somehow monitor a baby's heart rate during the labor process, we could identify babies in "distress" and deliver them in a timely fashion. There was even a feeling that this monitoring would somehow decrease the number of C-sections. Of course, things did not turn out quite so rosy as expected, and many attribute the rise in unnecessary C-sections directly to fetal heart rate monitoring. The point is some of our best scientific ideas and assumptions turn out very differently in the end.

The whole climate change issue has become extremely politicized, unfortunately, from both ends of the political spectrum. Alarmists like Gore and Hansen, and deniers like Inhofe have done much to obscure the very real work that is being done and have helped inflame the passions of those on both sides of the issue, to the detriment of clear thinking on the subject. The climate is incredibly complex, and is certainly deserving of further study. It is folly to deny that the earth is warming (most "global warming deniers" do not deny this fact at all). But it is equally dangerous to proceed with large-scale, costly solutions that do not have a firm scientific basis to begin with.

Research like this is important, no doubt. But claiming that it establishes a strong link between global warming and severe storms is simply bad science from the BadAstronomer.

1 comment:

Petronia said...

All I know is that in 5th grade I learned that when we see an increase in high cirrus clouds it means bad weather is a-comin'. But I'm sure it is a little more complicated than that :)

Btw, you're like the coolest OB-GYN I know. Having a home birth...modern FHR monitoring not so rosy...Next thing you'll tell me is that you deliver breech babies! ;)