Time to leave Fantasy Island; Climate 2.0 is here

By Paul Beckwith (with input from Matthew Ladd)

A few days ago in Ottawa, the temperature reached 21oC. The old record was 18oC and the average high for this time of year is 5oC. This is not a local Ottawa effect or a one-shot anomaly. Weather records that have stood the test of time for over 100 years are dropping like flies everywhere. What is causing this?

Canada’s main meteorological office generates its weather forecasts by running complex analogical weather prediction models (commonly referred to as the “analog method”). In the analog method the existing state of the atmosphere in a particular region is determined, and then compared against a massive database of atmospheric states for the same time and region in previous years. The closest matches of the atmospheric states are identified, and the forecast is basically obtained by examining how those prior systems evolved over time.

Risk analysis uses the same data interpolation technique. For example, the analog method is used to assign a probability to experiencing a tornado in a region, or flooding frequency of an area, etc. This analytical method has worked remarkably well up until recently – during the old climate, that is – but now it’s obsolete and begging to be abandoned. There’s a new normal in town: Climate 2.0

Case in point: Meteorologists at Environment Canada and other places like AccuWeather predicted a cold snowy winter in 2011. So what happened last year?

  • It was warm in Ottawa until mid-December.
  • Then it cooled down and was an almost “normal” winter for 2.5 months.
  • In March we had an unprecedented heat wave that resulted in temperatures in the twenties for several weeks, causing buds to bloom.
  • After a killing frost in early April there was massive damage to many crops like strawberries and apples (Ontario lost 88% of its apple crop).

Conclusion: Last year’s “cold and snowy” winter forecast was a total bust. This year the weather wizards at Environment Canada and AccuWeather are predicting the same, and I expect they’ll be wrong again.

Why will this happen, you ask? If you’ve read my previous blogs then you already know the unfortunate answer. We’ve entered a non-linearity zone where events are increasingly unpredictable. We’re now in the realm of unknown unknowns; 1+1 doesn’t necessarily equal 2 anymore.

Ever increasing levels of greenhouse gases are warming our planet rapidly and particularly the high Artic, which is warming at a rate of 400% to 500% faster than the global average! The declining snow cover and rapidly disappearing sea ice can no longer keep the Arctic cool. The sun’s rays, once reflected harmlessly back out to space by white ice and extensive snow cover, are now rapidly being absorbed by dark water, dark thin ice and tundra. The temperature gradients between the pole and equator are decreasing at an astonishing rate – and that’s really scary news.

Climatology 101 predicts that a decrease in the equator-to-Arctic temperature gradient causes jet streams to slow or stall, resulting in a wavey slow moving pattern. A new stream eventually becomes established and is held in place by its relative continent-ocean location. Voilà! You have a new norm. Get used to the unexpected, like Frankenstorm Sandy turning left instead of right.

If you think the weather has been weird lately… hold on because it’s going to get a lot wackier. For example, consider droughts in U.S. food-growing regions that never end; or savannahfication/desertification of tropical rainforests we depend on to breathe.

Until the meteorologists get real and throw out their obsolete models, they’ll keep predicting nonsense. The 800-pound gorilla in the room isn’t going anywhere and the sooner they face up to that fact, the better for everyone. In our new Climate 2.0, with ever-diminishing Arctic sea ice and snow cover, the forecasting system at Environment Canada’s head office in Toronto has become akin to the BETA video player.

What’s my prediction for this winter? Following basic metrics -- e.g. Arctic sea ice and snow cover has declined approximately 20% over the last 365 days further amplifying the decrease in the temperature gradient -- I predict that this winter will be even weirder and less “wintery” than last. In fact, do not be surprised if it only gets cold from mid-January until mid-February, again with very little snow. I certainly will not be signing a driveway snow removal contract this winter.

We discontinued the Ford Pinto and BETA video player a long time ago. It’s time to pack up and leave Fantasy Island too. Climate 2.0 is here and queer, and it’s not going anywhere. Meteorologists need to accept the new reality.

Paul Beckwith is a PhD student with the laboratory for paleoclimatology and climatology, department of geography, University of Ottawa.

NASA Jet Stream Animation

Meandering around the planet like a rollicking roller coaster in the sky, the Northern Hemisphere's polar jet stream is a fast-moving belt of westerly winds that traverses the lower layers of the atmosphere. SOURCE


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