Can't Predict a Hurricane but Global Warming is a Certainty?

Weather and climate are not the same. According to NASA, weather represents atmospheric conditions over a short period of time compared to climate which is measured over relatively long periods of time. Both however use computer models attempting to predict the future.

As NOAA’s Climate.gov website explains, “Models help us to work through complicated problems and understand complex systems.” Indeed. Weather and climate are incredibly complex, influenced by sea, air, land, and the sun.

It is therefore no surprise that predicting the track of a hurricane, considered weather as it is short-term, is quite challenging. Below is a composite picture of multiple computer model predictions for tropical storm Joaquim, shortly before converting to a hurricane. This is from the Tropical Tidbits website, a well organized repository of storm information.

Each line represents a different prediction based on a particular computer model. Each model analyzes different types of data, with different weights assigned to this data, hence the variability. Much like predicting the outcome of an NFL football game with different amounts of importance assigned to the offense, the defense, coaches, quarterback, or any other aspects of the team.

What is obvious is that there is no “consensus,” a term used in discussions of climate change. One model predicts the storm hitting and settling in South Carolina. Another model has the storm visiting Kentucky, then heading north through Indiana and Michigan, finally petering out over the Hudson Bay in northern Canada. Most models predict the storm hitting hitting somewhere along the Eastern seaboard between the Carolinas and Maine. One model sends the storm out to sea then turning toward Newfoundland.

The Weather Channel forecast below looks like a plate of spaghetti, with storm tracks aimed everywhere along the East coast, and some heading out to sea.

So which is it? Where is the hurricane going to hit? Will Chris Christie be giving the president a man-hug next week? Will John Kerry’s Nantucket beach house manse be swallowed by the storm surge? This will all unfold within the next week, not 30 or 50 or 100 years from now.

Yet the computer models are all over the map. Literally. Yes, weather is different than climate, but both involve predictions based on computer models. Weather is happening tomorrow or next week. Climate is happening decades from now. If short term predictions are so difficult, why would long term predictions be easier?

It would be much simpler to predict the the Super Bowl participants and winner for 2016 than for 2066. Or the two presidential candidates in 2016 compared to 75 years from now, with those candidates not even being born yet.

Yet climate change is certain, beyond doubt or question. President Obama and Pope Francis are in agreement that, “we are living at a critical moment of history.”

How ironic that a hurricane, representing a clear and present danger to millions of people, is so unpredictable and that’s OK. If I say Hurricane Joaquim will head out to sea, am I called a “hurricane denier” and threatened with prison? No that’s reserved for those of us who challenge, not next weeks’ weather, but the climate a century from now.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based retina surgeon and writer. Follow him on Facebook  and Twitter.

Weather and climate are not the same. According to NASA, weather represents atmospheric conditions over a short period of time compared to climate which is measured over relatively long periods of time. Both however use computer models attempting to predict the future.

As NOAA’s Climate.gov website explains, “Models help us to work through complicated problems and understand complex systems.” Indeed. Weather and climate are incredibly complex, influenced by sea, air, land, and the sun.

It is therefore no surprise that predicting the track of a hurricane, considered weather as it is short-term, is quite challenging. Below is a composite picture of multiple computer model predictions for tropical storm Joaquim, shortly before converting to a hurricane. This is from the Tropical Tidbits website, a well organized repository of storm information.

Each line represents a different prediction based on a particular computer model. Each model analyzes different types of data, with different weights assigned to this data, hence the variability. Much like predicting the outcome of an NFL football game with different amounts of importance assigned to the offense, the defense, coaches, quarterback, or any other aspects of the team.

What is obvious is that there is no “consensus,” a term used in discussions of climate change. One model predicts the storm hitting and settling in South Carolina. Another model has the storm visiting Kentucky, then heading north through Indiana and Michigan, finally petering out over the Hudson Bay in northern Canada. Most models predict the storm hitting hitting somewhere along the Eastern seaboard between the Carolinas and Maine. One model sends the storm out to sea then turning toward Newfoundland.

The Weather Channel forecast below looks like a plate of spaghetti, with storm tracks aimed everywhere along the East coast, and some heading out to sea.

So which is it? Where is the hurricane going to hit? Will Chris Christie be giving the president a man-hug next week? Will John Kerry’s Nantucket beach house manse be swallowed by the storm surge? This will all unfold within the next week, not 30 or 50 or 100 years from now.

Yet the computer models are all over the map. Literally. Yes, weather is different than climate, but both involve predictions based on computer models. Weather is happening tomorrow or next week. Climate is happening decades from now. If short term predictions are so difficult, why would long term predictions be easier?

It would be much simpler to predict the the Super Bowl participants and winner for 2016 than for 2066. Or the two presidential candidates in 2016 compared to 75 years from now, with those candidates not even being born yet.

Yet climate change is certain, beyond doubt or question. President Obama and Pope Francis are in agreement that, “we are living at a critical moment of history.”

How ironic that a hurricane, representing a clear and present danger to millions of people, is so unpredictable and that’s OK. If I say Hurricane Joaquim will head out to sea, am I called a “hurricane denier” and threatened with prison? No that’s reserved for those of us who challenge, not next weeks’ weather, but the climate a century from now.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based retina surgeon and writer. Follow him on Facebook  and Twitter.