Questions from a Korean magazine and answers (by PROFESSOR RICHARD LINDZEN)

Questions from a Korean magazine and answers (by Richard Lindzen) to these questions:

1. A large part of the world including Europe and Northeast Asia suffered a long and severe heat wave this summer. What was the problem?

The problem was weather. Weather is produced by waves that alternately provide warming and cooling, as the wind shifts from northerly to southerly. Such waves generally travel from west to east, but sometimes stall in what is referred to as blocking. Relatively long and severe heat waves in summer that affect disparate regions are not unprecedented.

2. How much portion of such climate change is man-made?

Please don’t confuse weather and climate. The small change in global mean temperature over the past century is unlikely to have had much influence on weather. However, ‘global warming’ has always been a mostly political issue, and it has been found that people don’t take predictions of warming in the distant future very seriously, so there has been an intense effort to make people think that the impacts are present already.

3. Is there anything unique about the climate changes over the Korean Peninsula and Japan (such as the impact of China’s rapid industrialization)?

Most places on earth have unique features. In the case of the Korean Peninsula, the configuration of the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea, and the Sea of Japan does provide some unique features that can affect weather and even climate. However, the industrialization of China is more likely to have an impact on pollution, rather than climate.

4. How about Europe and North America?

As usual, summer will be warmer than winter. Summers will commonly have seemingly long episodes of warmer than average weather – which we refer to as heat waves. This year July was particularly warm in North America and much of Europe. August in much of southern Europe was pleasantly cool, but Scandinavia remained warm. August has been cool and rainy in much of the northeast of North America. However, warm weather is now returning (at least briefly). Given the wave nature of weather, none of this is unprecedented.

5. Will the type of long and hot summer be a new normal? What should be done to reverse the change, or at least to slow down the pace of it?

I don’t know what you mean by ‘new normal’. Such summers have already occurred many times, and they are commonly followed by very different summers in the following year. The same is true for winters. I doubt that there is much we can do about this. Ancient literature like the Bible and the Icelandic sagas already describe such events.

6. If you think it’s a new normal (for the question No. 5), how would such change reshape global economy/business in general (including farming and fishing)?

Of course, I don’t think we are dealing with anything new. What history shows – is that farmers are capable of significant adaptation, fishermen have other problems like overfishing, and more generally, rich societies are able to adapt better than poor societies to changes in climate. The best policy for any society is to become wealthier. However, in the case of farming, there is the obvious benefit of increased CO2 since increased CO2 enhances plant growth and reduces the need of plants for water.

7. How would the long and hot summer weather affect the overall winter weather to come?

Such an influence is possible, but does not seem to be large.

8. How much have the weather-predicting technologies been advanced in recent years and how would they be further advanced in the foreseeable future?

There has been notable improvement in numerical weather prediction models, and predictions for 2-3 days are now quite good. The model at the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting is notably good. Predictions for 6-7 days or longer remain poor, and are likely to remain so, because small and unavoidable observational errors become important at these time scales. The situation with respect to observations is mixed. The best data come from sources like balloon soundings, and the number of such stations has actually gone down. This is especially serious when it comes to weather ships which have almost disappeared. A weather ship or two in the Yellow Sea would probably help Korean forecasts quite a lot. Satellite data does enable one to identify new weather systems over poorly observed regions. However, the data that satellites provide for models are of limited utility. Although satellites provide temperature data with good horizontal resolution, the vertical resolution is too poor to actually improve model forecasts – at least in the Northern Hemisphere.

9. What are some variables or obstacles that make precise weather prediction difficult? (and how can they be overcome?)

See answer to question 8.

10. Are there many private weather information companies in the United States? How can they cooperate with the government and companies to sharpen the weather predictions and generate profit?

Private weather services in the US generally use the forecasts from the government and add locally relevant interpretations.

11. Korean government’s weather prediction is notoriously inaccurate. What should be done to improve the accuracy? (On the contrary, I found that the weather-prediction in the United Kingdom is very accurate while I was studying there. Can it be a technological difference?)

My recommendation would be for Korea to import the model from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (in Reading, UK), and use a comparably powerful computer. Also, add a weather ship or two in the Yellow Sea.

12. Please feel free to add your opinion on climate change and its impact humans, technological advancement to increase accuracy in weather prediction, etc.

The real problem facing the developed world is the fact that the vast majority of people (including the vast majority of the population with higher education, as well as the vast majority of political leaders) are essentially scientifically illiterate. When one realizes that government is the primary funder of science, this can lead to obvious misbehavior by both government and science. Your previous questions offer a good opportunity to explain the problem in greater detail.

Your questions freely confuse weather and climate. Thus, global warming refers to the warming of about 1.0 °C, since the end of the Little Ice Age about 200 years ago. On the other hand, your examples involve temperature changes on the order of 20.0 °C. Such large changes, which characterize weather, have a profoundly different origin than that of global warming. The large changes, crudely speaking, result from winds carrying warm and cold air from distant regions that are very warm or very cold. These winds are in the form of the waves I mentioned earlier. The strength of these waves depends on the temperature difference between the tropics and the arctic (with larger differences leading to stronger waves). Now, the models used to project global warming all predict that this temperature difference will decrease rather than increase. Thus, the increase in temperature extremes would best support global cooling rather than global warming.

However, scientifically illiterate people seem incapable of distinguishing global warming of climate from temperature extremes due to weather. In fact, there doesn’t really seem to be any discernible trend in weather extremes. There is only the greater attention paid by the media to weather, and the exploitation of this ‘news’ coverage by various parties. Moreover, the small change in global mean temperature (actually the change in temperature increase) is much smaller than what models used by the IPCC have predicted. Even if all this change were due to human activity, it would be most consistent with low sensitivity to added CO2, and the IPCC only claims that most (not all) of the warming over the past 60 years is due to human activities. Thus, the issue of man-made climate change does not appear to be a serious problem. The unwarranted concern over this issue is leading to irrational policies, as well as the diversion of monetary resources needed for the numerous real problems facing humanity.

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