Climate. Looking at the forest for the trees (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla PhD)
(Climate. Looking at the forest for the trees (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla PhD) April 2015. DOI10.13140/RG.2.2.17288.72966 Projects: Filling In/Finding Out Gaps Around in Environmental Sciences. Diego Fdez-Sevilla)
I understand the point of view from which when considering the players in our environment defining the planet’s climate, the proportional relativity between the magnitudes of energy that they manage, “solar flux” and “oceanic thermohaline circulations” are too big to consider that they might be affected by changes in atmospheric composition triggered by Man’s activities.
However, from my point of view, what we are facing is the challenge to understand not how much energy and the source required to change the course of such a big ship from outside, but rather to just move the steering wheel. And I believe that Land Cover and Atmospheric composition (gases and aerosols) might be the key features here.
Climate is a vague term that can mean too many things in the hands of different people. Which variables define our climate? Global T and Humidity? The distribution of zonal Temperatures and humidity regimes? I haven`t even seen an agreement on what is that it has to change in order to define a “shift” in the global climate? Has anybody defined the thresholds defining the climate in our planet? Which are the key values from which beyond or below, we can consider that they are transforming a climate? If we take the equator as a reference we will not have same properties defining our climate as if we take 60 degrees N, or even South due to hemispheric asymmetries. We can use weather patterns, being considered all together, to create a profile describing a planetary climatic system. A profile based on the number, location and characteristics of those weather patterns: T, Humidity, wind speed, Precipitation by type and amount, timing and location for formation and dissipation, etc…. Like defining a forest by the number, location and type of trees.
If we take that definition, and the profile created by those weather patterns to define a planetary climate, the mere fact of being capable to alter one or more variables involved in the formation of those weather events making the profile of the climate, implies a direct link between cause and causation. The proportionality of the forces involved and the relative repercussion from variations for each variable depends entirely on which part of the mechanism gets affected. If the consumption of resources generates variations in the thermodynamic mechanisms driving weather events, ultimately it could generate feedback loops between weather events, changing weather patterns and ultimately the profile of climate defined by them.
The trees for the forests.
In the recent months we have seen already some atmospheric events which, in isolation, they only represent the broad range of variability that our environment can generate.
We can observe what type of atmospheric events have happened before and compare with those which are happening now. Like looking at tree rings in order to identify similarities throughout time in biological productivity, we might see that similar events have happened before. So, maybe, there is nothing new on today’s climate that it has not occurred before. However, how many trees are still alive old enough for us to study? What is the location and the level of performance for those trees? You might find trees showing past periods of similar biological productivity linked to similar temperatures and yet, I believe that it is of as much interest to look at the similarities comparing through time how many of those trees keep populating their natural ecosystems and how many ecosystems maintain their characteristics stable enough for those trees to survive.
Similarly with this idea, atmospheric events happening that have not happened in a previous “significant” period of time seem to start becoming the “trees” which define the “forest” that our understanding is trying to see. Like the tale of the “boiling frog”, we are at risk of getting our capacity for understanding “cooked” by being submerged in a forest of “big data”.
I believe that it would be important to not overlook the limitations carried within the conceptualization of our climate from being built upon numerical data. Models based on past records can only give outcomes which replicate the principles applied to build the mathematical interpretation of those past events. Therefore, like a 2D model only give predictions within the two dimensions being considered, mathematical models applied in climatic evolution, based on past data, have the limitations of transmitting into their outcomes the level of uncertainty which already carries the limited understanding on the factors and synergies considered to create the model. The perception of that every natural event is the result of inertial momentum implies the assumption of linearity for any outcome within 2D (quantity vs time). This approach restrict the capacity to predict only movements in the dimensions which have been identified as related, without considering the existence of an unidentified “third Z axis” (or more). Such kind set of mind has narrowed the interpretation of our climate to data applied to define the existence of “anomalies” based on “increase/decrease” over time. This is a two dimensional set of mind prepare to only “see” correlations in 2D. Some correlations might define one plane, some others might define other planes, and there would be a weak correlation between events and parameters defining different planes of a multidimensional environment. If our data is so “big” and “uncharacterised” that we can not see the relation between the planes describing our climate we may need to ultimately start from understanding the significance behind the singularity of each individual event in order to identify the plane described just by their existence.
When it becomes difficult to characterise the significance and relations between large amounts of data, trying to describe the behaviour of a “whole”, it should not be overlooked the significance of how many variables have to come together for each single event to develop and how many variables have to “not happen” in order for the event to develop.
Some trees from the forest.
Also with the persistent bocking patterns observed over the East Pacific (California) and the Atlantic there are some events which we have seen in the recent months, from North Pole to South Pole, from the Equatorial Amazons to the Equatorial Philippines:
It’s amazing to think, but in Brazil, a country that boasts both the Amazon Rain Forest and River, parts of the country are in danger of seeing their water supplies dry up after back-to-back rainy seasons failed to live up to their name. Southeastern Brazil—the country’s most economically important region and home to São Paulo, its largest city—is struggling through what the media is calling the worst drought in nearly a century. The reservoirs that service the metro area of Sao Paulo and its 20 million residents were only at 8.9% of capacity during the middle of February, a shockingly low level. As a bit of good news, rains during the end of month bumped reservoir levels up to 11% according to Bloomberg Business, although, that is still a critically low number.
March 18, 2015. (NOAA Climate.gov)
It has been a topsy-turvy winter for much of the contiguous United States. The divide between record warmest and much below-average could not be any more stark. In the eastern US, for the entire winter, average temperatures were amongst the coldest third of all years back to 1895. And along with the cold came record-breaking snow across New England.
On the flip side, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Washington observed their warmest winters on record (which goes back 120 years) while Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming observed winter in the top three. But let’s not stop there; the warm conditions extended across the far north too as Alaska experienced a second consecutive warm winter.
In fact, average surface temperatures in Alaska for December through February ranged from 4-10°F above normal, with the largest anomalies occurring in western Alaska. This meant that during the entire winter season, average temperatures were near freezing (32F) across the southern coast of Alaska with high temperatures ranging between below 0° to 12°F in areas farther north.
March 25, 2015 (NOAA. Climate.gov)
March is a quiet time for hurricanes in the North Atlantic and eastern Pacific Oceans, but in mid-March 2015, halfway around the world, the tropics were bustling with tropical cyclones. Two of them formed under unique circumstances: one on either side of the equator, at nearly the same longitude, at nearly the same time—basically, as twins. Given their eventual differences, though, we’d have to call them fraternal rather than identical twins. The animation below captures the activity in the tropics from March 8-18, 2015.
Satellite infrared view of clouds over western tropical Pacific from March 8-18, 2015, based on data from the Japanese Meterological Agency’s MTSAT-2 satellite, overlaid on NASA Blue Marble satellite image composite. Animation by Dan Pisut, NOAA EVL. Change settings to 720p or view full-size for best quality.
Twin tropical cyclones occur roughly once a year and involve a certain set of ingredients. In general, twin cyclones are preceded by areas of thunderstorms that straddle the equator and which are associated with strong westerly winds (winds blowing west to east). Imagine putting your finger into a pool and moving it in a straight line. You would see swirls develop on either side of your finger. The same concept is at play with tropical cyclones, it is just Mother Nature doing the stirring.
April 1, 2015. (Met Office.)
There is currently a super typhoon in the western North Pacific called Maysak. This is a particularly strong storm for the time of year with winds in excess of 160 mph. The strongest storms in this region usually occur between August and October. Tropical storms, including typhoons, are reliant on sea surface temperatures for their energy, and as the northern hemisphere has just moved from winter to spring, this is the coldest time of year for sea temperatures. However, in the region where Typhoon Maysak formed just north of the equator, sea temperatures are almost always above 26°C, which is the critical value for tropical storm formation. Furthermore, the sea temperatures are unusually warm in this area by more than 2°C.
Super Typhoon Maysak is the fourth tropical storm of the season in the western North Pacific, the others being Mekkhala, Higos and Bavi. There has not been a year with four or more tropical storms in this region forming before the end of March since 1965. Three of the four storms have been typhoons – only Bavi remained below the 74mph threshold (the sustained wind speed required to become a typhoon). There have never been as many typhoons before the end of March in the era of reliable records (since World War II). Maysak was also the strongest typhoon to develop in March in this region since Mitag in 2002.
Someone in a discussion group made the following comment: “A less diffuse definition of climate is not included here which makes difficult a sound statistical analysis of climate.”
Big data and statistics have become the “Philosopher’s Stone” in science. And like the philosopher’s stone would turn inexpensive metals into gold, all eyes are set on Big Data and Statistics as the answer for any environmental challenge. However, in the recent years, the papers being published addressing the evolution of weather patterns defining the climate are increasingly pointing out the need for incorporating and exploring new theories in order to enhance the potential behind all the data and fields of science available.
I sense that there is a subtle barrier that separates points of view and efforts when analysing and debating environmental issues. And I believe that part of it comes from a misconception in the way sometimes numbers are applied to defend those points of view. There are limitations and side effects when applying and giving to numbers and statistics the role of “answers” instead of being considered just by what they are, tools subject to interpretation. This situation makes some debates to lose conceptual meaning by becoming a clash of statistical technicalities.
There are two important sets of mind that apply to understand the behaviour of any complex system in which two or more parts interact. The study of the variables related with the behaviour of the system as a whole (e.g. an ecosystem), and the variables related with the performance for each single component of the system. When looking at our climate, we can try to understand it by looking at it as a whole, but also, we can look at it as the result coming from combining what represents the requirements to allow the viability for each single meteorological event, like looking at the forest for the trees.
One of the new challenges ahead lies on keeping alive the creativity necessary to explore behaviours moving beyond the stiffness carried within statistical analyses. Even when big data represents a step forward in scientific resources, it will never replace the creativity of a curious mind, in the same manner that “deep blue” suffered from lack of creativity playing chess.
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(This post is part of a more complex piece of independent research. I believe that the hypothesis that I have presented in previous posts in this blog (here, here and here) could help to understand present and possible future scenarios in atmospheric circulation. However, this is an assessment based on observation which needs to be validated throughout open discussion and data gathering. So please feel free to incorporate your thoughts and comments in a constructive manner.
Any scientist working in disciplines related with the topics that I treat in my blog knows how to judge the contribution that my work could potentially add to the state of knowledge. Since I am in transition looking for a position in research and/or communication, if you are one of those scientists, by just acknowledging any value you might see from my contribution, it would not only make justice to my effort as independent researcher, but ultimately, it will help me to enhance my chances to find a position with resources to further develop my work.
If you feel like sharing this post I would appreciate to have a reference about the place or platform, by private or public message, in order for me to have the opportunity to join the debate and be aware of the repercussion which might generate d.fdezsevilla(at)gmail.com)
For anybody interested in the posts related with this discussion here I leave you those more relevant in chronological order (there are comments bellow some of them. Please check them out):
- New theory proposal to assess possible changes in Atmospheric Circulation (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla) Posted on October 21, 2014. http://wp.me/p403AM-k3
- Why there is no need for the Polar Vortex to break in order to have a wobbling Jet Stream and polar weather? (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla) Posted on November 14, 2014. http://wp.me/p403AM-mt
- Gathering data to make visible the invisible (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla) Posted on December 22, 2014. http://wp.me/p403AM-pN
- State of the Polar Vortex. Broken? From 29 Nov 2014 to 5th Jan 2015 (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla). Posted on November 29, 2014. http://wp.me/p403AM-o7
- Probability in the atmospheric circulation dictating the Weather (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla) Posted on January 15, 2015. http://wp.me/p403AM-rm
- Meteorological Outlook Feb 2015 (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla) Posted on February 7, 2015. http://wp.me/p403AM-sU
- Revisiting the theory of “Facing a decrease in the differential gradients of energy in atmospheric circulation” by Diego Fdez-Sevilla. Posted on February 10, 2015. http://wp.me/p403AM-to