Hubris and the History of Forecasting

Parting thoughts on the Earth-love-fest in Cancun, Mexico: Bureaucrats of the world united to once again try to save the planet from supposed man-made global warming.  Yet just a few hundred miles northwest of Cancun, during a time in history when humans were ostensibly not disrupting the climate, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history befell Galveston, Texas.

On September 8, 1900, the winds and waves of a fierce hurricane yielded a sad and perhaps avoidable episode.  The Weather Service director in charge on Galveston Island that fateful September day was Dr. Isaac Monroe Cline.  Dr. Cline's own recollections of that event are recorded in his Storms, Floods and Sunshine: Isaac Monroe Cline, an Autobiography (Pelican Publishing Company, 1945).  He recalls harnessing his horse to his two-wheeled cart used for hunting and driving the cart along the beach.  Dr. Cline goes on to write:
I warned the people that great danger threatened them, and advised some 6,000 persons ... to go home immediately.  I warned persons residing within three blocks of the beach to move to the higher portions of the city, that their houses would be undermined by the ebb and flow of the increasing storm tide and would be washed away.  Summer visitors went home, and residents moved out in accordance with the advice given them.  Some 6,000 lives were saved by my advice and warnings.
Understandably, today's National Weather Service gives its highest recognition, the "Isaac M. Cline Award," to service personnel for operational excellence in saving lives and property.

But there's one problem: The gallant effort authored by Dr. Cline may very well have been a legend from his own mind.  Author Erik Larson in his national bestseller Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (Vintage Books, 2000) substantiates a scenario more likely than the official heroic record.  According to scores of independent historical accounts uncovered after meticulous investigation by Mr. Larson, it seems that Dr. Cline never saddled up as a meteorological Paul Revere to ride up and down the beach, urging bathers to seek shelter.  Nor did he even warn residents of the impending doom until it was much too late for anyone to take proper precautions.  In fact, until just a few hours before the brunt of the storm's fury hit Galveston, Dr. Cline staunchly assured residents that it was nearly impossible for the island to experience serious damage from a hurricane.  So much for scientific certainty and authorized history.

By the way, best estimates peg the death toll from the Galveston storm at six to eight thousand souls.

What do we learn from the history of the remarkable Isaac Cline with regards to the U.N.'s Cancun climate cabal?  Perhaps, most notably, we learn that arrogance can lead to calamitous loss of life and property.  Although admirable in his intelligence, work ethic, integrity, and lifetime achievements, Dr. Cline thought too highly of himself.  His overconfidence in his own understanding of the depth of nature likely contributed to the deaths of thousands of people.

Today, once again, if there is one paramount challenge to overcome in the field of climate forecasting, it is hubris.  And as in the past, such hubris can lead to lives lost and economic disaster.  This time, though, the "negative" of the Dr. Cline picture seems to be emerging.  Instead of the unfortunate results rising from assurance that "all is well," now such outcomes will arise from assurance that "catastrophic climate conditions are all but certain unless wealth is redistributed through international agencies."  Beware of forecasters and their bureaucratic supporters bearing undue confidence that they know the future of the planet's climate.  Know instead that the basis for their knowledge is woefully inadequate -- as will always be the amount of money required for their "solutions."

Over the coming months and years, whether from Cancun, Copenhagen, or any other extravagant locale, we will continue to hear about present and expected future extraordinary atmospheric conditions.  However, weather forecasting (or, by analogy, climate forecasting), performed by fallible and frequently foolhardy forecasters and blustered by a power-hungry entourage, is part science and part art.  Many, like Dr. Cline of long ago, emphasize the science of forecasting to bolster their apparent prescience.  But there is much more art to forecasting, and therefore much more uncertainty, than the professional promoters will let on.  Furthermore, the art is surely more dominant in long-range, global climate forecasting than in local weather predicting.  So remember that although the art of climate forecasting, like any complex art, is impressive to behold, the fruit of such forecasting can be unimpressive and, sometimes, even tragic to believe.

Anthony J. Sadar is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist specializing in air-quality issues and primary author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers, 2000).
Parting thoughts on the Earth-love-fest in Cancun, Mexico: Bureaucrats of the world united to once again try to save the planet from supposed man-made global warming.  Yet just a few hundred miles northwest of Cancun, during a time in history when humans were ostensibly not disrupting the climate, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history befell Galveston, Texas.

On September 8, 1900, the winds and waves of a fierce hurricane yielded a sad and perhaps avoidable episode.  The Weather Service director in charge on Galveston Island that fateful September day was Dr. Isaac Monroe Cline.  Dr. Cline's own recollections of that event are recorded in his Storms, Floods and Sunshine: Isaac Monroe Cline, an Autobiography (Pelican Publishing Company, 1945).  He recalls harnessing his horse to his two-wheeled cart used for hunting and driving the cart along the beach.  Dr. Cline goes on to write:
I warned the people that great danger threatened them, and advised some 6,000 persons ... to go home immediately.  I warned persons residing within three blocks of the beach to move to the higher portions of the city, that their houses would be undermined by the ebb and flow of the increasing storm tide and would be washed away.  Summer visitors went home, and residents moved out in accordance with the advice given them.  Some 6,000 lives were saved by my advice and warnings.
Understandably, today's National Weather Service gives its highest recognition, the "Isaac M. Cline Award," to service personnel for operational excellence in saving lives and property.

But there's one problem: The gallant effort authored by Dr. Cline may very well have been a legend from his own mind.  Author Erik Larson in his national bestseller Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (Vintage Books, 2000) substantiates a scenario more likely than the official heroic record.  According to scores of independent historical accounts uncovered after meticulous investigation by Mr. Larson, it seems that Dr. Cline never saddled up as a meteorological Paul Revere to ride up and down the beach, urging bathers to seek shelter.  Nor did he even warn residents of the impending doom until it was much too late for anyone to take proper precautions.  In fact, until just a few hours before the brunt of the storm's fury hit Galveston, Dr. Cline staunchly assured residents that it was nearly impossible for the island to experience serious damage from a hurricane.  So much for scientific certainty and authorized history.

By the way, best estimates peg the death toll from the Galveston storm at six to eight thousand souls.

What do we learn from the history of the remarkable Isaac Cline with regards to the U.N.'s Cancun climate cabal?  Perhaps, most notably, we learn that arrogance can lead to calamitous loss of life and property.  Although admirable in his intelligence, work ethic, integrity, and lifetime achievements, Dr. Cline thought too highly of himself.  His overconfidence in his own understanding of the depth of nature likely contributed to the deaths of thousands of people.

Today, once again, if there is one paramount challenge to overcome in the field of climate forecasting, it is hubris.  And as in the past, such hubris can lead to lives lost and economic disaster.  This time, though, the "negative" of the Dr. Cline picture seems to be emerging.  Instead of the unfortunate results rising from assurance that "all is well," now such outcomes will arise from assurance that "catastrophic climate conditions are all but certain unless wealth is redistributed through international agencies."  Beware of forecasters and their bureaucratic supporters bearing undue confidence that they know the future of the planet's climate.  Know instead that the basis for their knowledge is woefully inadequate -- as will always be the amount of money required for their "solutions."

Over the coming months and years, whether from Cancun, Copenhagen, or any other extravagant locale, we will continue to hear about present and expected future extraordinary atmospheric conditions.  However, weather forecasting (or, by analogy, climate forecasting), performed by fallible and frequently foolhardy forecasters and blustered by a power-hungry entourage, is part science and part art.  Many, like Dr. Cline of long ago, emphasize the science of forecasting to bolster their apparent prescience.  But there is much more art to forecasting, and therefore much more uncertainty, than the professional promoters will let on.  Furthermore, the art is surely more dominant in long-range, global climate forecasting than in local weather predicting.  So remember that although the art of climate forecasting, like any complex art, is impressive to behold, the fruit of such forecasting can be unimpressive and, sometimes, even tragic to believe.

Anthony J. Sadar is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist specializing in air-quality issues and primary author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers, 2000).