Atmospheric science 50 years later
The climate of the atmospheric science field has changed dramatically over the past few decades. The "weather," once considered a safe topic of conversation in polite company, has morphed into the subject of heated socio-political debate. Besides scientists, there are celebrities, politicians, pundits, and pontiffs all contributing to the meteorological mayhem.
Fifty years ago, when the climate was not so controversial, I recorded my first weather observation. On February 18, 1968, I noted winds from my homemade instrument perched in a tree outside my bedroom window. I recorded weather conditions several times each day almost without fail from that time on when I was in eighth grade until I went off to college, getting my undergraduate degree in meteorology from Penn State in 1976.
From my first assignment in the profession as a weather observer at a remote site in Alaska, 160 miles above the Arctic Circle, to work as an air pollution meteorologist in private consulting and government service, a lot has changed since 1968.
Increasing computer power and computational rapidity, innovative satellite and radar technology, refinement and deployment of weather sensors, and the like tremendously expanded meteorological capabilities. Understanding and concomitant forecasting of atmospheric conditions reached new heights to where confidence in our ability to accurately predict the future has quickly grown, perhaps too hastily.
Throughout the decades, experiencing the downs and ups of global temperatures and its enthusiastic publicists, I learned several important lessons.
- Good scientists operate in humility. Arrogance leads to errors.
- A scientist must be free to explore any hypothesis, theory, or doubt. Truth is not the winner of a "consensus" popularity contest.
- Science literacy means appreciating the difference between knowledge, on the one hand, and assumptions, guesses, and beliefs on the other.
- Political science pressure negatively influences natural science outcomes. Scientific practice works to discover facts, not invent them.
- Crisis-mongering is particularly harmful to climate science. Crisis-mongering tends to soak the middle class by trying to solve problems that don't exist with solutions that don't work, while depriving the world's poor of a better tomorrow.
My guess is that substantial global climate changes from human activity will be limited to the small- and medium-range scales. Whether these changes will be drastic or not depends on your perspective. People living in cities that were once forests, with its attentive micro-scale climate change, are likely to be grateful for the change. Others may see all those city-dwellers as the problem. Potential mesoscale alterations of storm tracks will benefit some while dissing others. Measured, long-term, global-scale impacts can just as likely be small and beneficial as large and catastrophic.
I don't know what the atmosphere will be like fifty years from now. But one thing that seems certain is that the climate of atmospheric science research and application will benefit enormously from constructive independent thinking, not from rigid conformity to groupthink and outcomes induced by politicized government largesse.
Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and the author of In Global Warming We Trust: Too Big to Fail (Stairway Press, 2016).