Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Same Old Minnesota Winter

My last utterance on this site regarding so-called climate change was quite a while ago.  Having perused that post, my opinions haven't changed.  I stand by everything I wrote at that time.  Interestingly, that post was inspired by an article written by local meteorologist Paul Douglas who made several of what I considered to be unfounded statements about drastic climate changes.  Well, another article has come to bear this week, entitled "The New Minnesota Winter?" citing Douglas as its main source, which has similarly raised questions in my mind, both stemming from what he said in the article, and also from new information I've learned in my layman's study of climate science.  By all accounts, Paul Douglas is a wonderful, conservative Christian man, and I have no desire to berate him or be uncharitable to his opinions.  Nevertheless, I have several thoughts and questions based on his most recent submission to the climate change conversation.

Before I get into my questions (and statements) about climate change, I want to state a couple things about where I'm coming from: 1) I am not a climate scientist, nor do I pretend to fully grasp the mechanics and workings of climate science.  The conclusions I draw here could very well be based on ignorance.  If you think so, please correct me or show me how I have erred.  I would welcome dialogue.  2) I completely and unequivocally reject the label of "climate-denier" or any other such title that asserts that I reject climate science out of pure ignorance, or because I have some sort of stock in the lack of a belief in climate change.  I hold no stock or interest in any energy companies that would be negatively impacted by new policy set forth in order to protect the planet.  Nor do I have any political reasons to doubt climate change theory.  My doubts about climate change theory are, as far as I can tell, based on the evidence (or lack thereof).  In fact, I would challenge those who say "the science is clear" when it comes to climate change theory to consider the potential need for a bit more self-awareness about how they evaluate and interpret scientific data.  Can we at least agree that the science is, in fact, not clear, and that we can have a dialogue about this?  I hope so.  If we can't agree on that, then there can be no dialogue.  There can be no tolerance (yes, I use that word intentionally).

One of the things I have learned about climate science - actually it's not so much new information to me, but rather that I have learned more about it - is that there are different types of climate data that inform climate change theory.  These different types of data, however, do not necessarily agree.  For instance, there is surface temperature data, satellite data, ice core data, polar ice cap data, and so on, with several more types of data of which I'm not even aware.  The point is that these different types of data each present unique pictures of climate change and how it is allegedly affecting our planet.  The difficulty is that these different types of data are difficult - if not impossible - to synthesize.  That is, they don't work together very well.  To make matters more confusing, many climate change theorists assert that only one type of data does not tell the entire climate change story.  For instance, climate change theory cannot stand on surface temperature data alone, as surface temperature data does not necessarily support climate change theory - it must be synthesized with another type of climate data.  One of my questions, then, is as follows: how do we know which climate data supports climate change theory and which does not?  How do we know which sets of data are appropriate to synthesize and which are not?  Is it possible for one set of data to "cancel out" another set of data?  Why, or why not? (For instance, does the fact that polar ice has been increasing work as evidence against supposed increases in global surface temperatures?)  These are genuine questions that I have, and they potentially expose my ignorance in how climate science "works."  If someone could help me figure out these apparent contradictions in my own analysis of the data, I would appreciate it.

One example of this difficulty in interpreting data that supposedly supports climate change theory was demonstrated recently in Leonard DiCaprio's Oscar-acceptance speech.  In it, DiCaprio cites surface temperature data as to why climate change is an imminent global threat.  But, a careful analysis of the data he cites seems to indicate that no such threat exists - at least based on that data, and when considered in light of other types of climate data (such as satellite data, in this instance).  For a moderately thorough analysis of DiCaprio's claims with links to data, read this article.  So the question is, who is right?  DiCaprio's interpretation of and conclusion from surface temperature data, or the author's interpretation of satellite data?  How are the two types of data synthesized?  I genuinely would like to know.

Paul Douglas makes similar claims, citing similar evidence, and I honestly just don't see how the evidence he uses can be interpreted in such a way as to make these claims.  In the article, Douglas comments that the winter season Minnesota has had in 2015-16 (which has been unseasonably warm and lacking in snow) is, perhaps, the new norm for Minnesota winters.  In other words, Douglas asserts that a warm winter like we've just experienced, will be the norm from now on.  In order to back this claim, Douglas cites surface temperature data, particularly that Minnesota averages 23 sub-zero nights per winter, but this winter has only seen 10 sub-zero nights.  Douglas further asserts that average Twin Cities snowfall is around 54 inches, whereas this winter's snowfall has only been around 30 inches.  On March 8, 2014, there was 16 inches of snow on the ground, whereas on March 8, 2016, people were wearing shorts and flip-flops.  These shorter, warmer winters will become the new norm, Douglas says.  We'll still have the cold snowy winters of old, but they will be much fewer and farther between.  Douglas says, "It's not a theory, you don't have to like it, but can we acknowledge it's not your grandfather's weather?"

No.  I can't.  And the reason I can't is that the evidence Douglas cites does not seem to (to me, at least) at all support his conclusion.  In fact, if anything, Twin Cities surface temperature data seems to overwhelmingly support the notion that this weather is exactly identical to my "grandfather's weather."

The Minnesota DNR's website has surface temperature data records that go back to 1872, and snowfall data that goes back to 1884.  Just skim the data from both pages and try to form an argument that the winter of 2016 is a statistical aberration.  As far as I can see, it can't be done.  Here are just a few examples that jumped out to me, but a more in depth analysis of the data shows that these examples are the norm, rather than the exception.  For example, the snowfall totals for the years 1887-1893 were: 62.3, 47.2, 14.7, 37.0, 11.1, 32.7, and 59.1 inches, respectively.   (Note that this is during an age when all of the alleged causes of climate change didn't even exist, such as automobiles).  Look at those totals over seven years - that's amazing!  Can you imagine a winter in Minnesnowta with only 11 inches of snow?!  Were the Minnesotans in 1890 predicting a "new norm" for Minnesota winters based on that data?  Certainly not.  Then, why are we?

Want some more-recent evidence?  Here are the snowfall totals from 2011-2015: 86.6, 22.3, 67.7, 69.8, and 32.4 inches, respectively.  And if all continues as it probably will in 2016, we'll probably end up with 30-34 inches.  From what I can tell, this warm, snowless Minnesota winter of 2016 is a lot like my grandfather's winter.

And if you're thinking that I picked the one aberration in the data to support my theory, think again, and analyze the data for yourself.  You'll find aberrations like this throughout the whole time that surface temperature data has been recorded.  And you'll find similar aberrations in temperature data - not just in snowfall totals.  Based on these patterns, why should we conclude that the supposed warming pattern we find ourselves in right now is any different than warming patterns of 100 years ago?  I would love to have a conversation about this with someone in the know.

Some will certainly argue in response to my claims that my view is too narrow - that I shouldn't be making assertions based on one type of evidence (surface temperature data), in such a small sample area (the state of Minnesota).  OK.  I'll agree with that.  But then somebody needs to tell Paul Douglas to play by those same rules.  If I can't make conclusions about climate change using one data source from a small sample area, then neither can he.  The problem is that those rules and limitations don't apply to those who would advocate for climate change theory - they only seem to apply to those of us who haven't drunk this particular batch of kool aid.  Why is that?  Again, this is a genuine question, and I would love to hear a response.

So there it is, at least in part: based on the way the evidence is interpreted and reported by the media, I just don't see how it proves climate change theory.  To be sure, what I've touched on here is only part of the story, but I think my observations here apply to other types of data that supposedly support climate change theory.

One of the points I made in a previous post on climate change is that it is impossible to interpret data and analyze evidence in a vacuum.  That is, none of us looks at data completely objectively - we are always being influenced by outside factors that color our interpretation of data.  To deny this reality is to be intellectually dishonest, and I think that's also a part of the friction that is caused by this debate. So then, has this been a warm and snowless winter?  Sure.  Is it due to climate change?  Well, based on the evidence that Paul Douglas likes to cite, no more so than it was in 1968 when we had similarly high temperatures and only half the snow (17.5 inches!) we had this year.

Finally, let me reiterate my desire for an open dialogue on this issue.  As I've noted earlier, I am hardly the last word on this topic, nor am I particularly qualified to be commenting on it, as there are many ways in which my analysis could be off, most of which I'm probably not even aware.  I am very open to correction and would welcome interaction, either in the comments or by email.

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