Despite some dire predictions — droughts, fires, windstorms, the warm-water ocean “Blob” wreaking long-term ecological havoc — local meteorologist Cliff Mass says the weather of 2016 was tame.
The conventional wisdom around newsrooms is that people love a “weather story” — and now the data analytics prove it. Floods, wildfires, droughts, storms. Folks love to read about the weather.
In mid-October, for example, a Seattle Times Facebook post about a much-hyped windstorm — that wound up being mild — got four times more attention than the average Seattle Times Facebook post in 2016. To reiterate: A story about a severe weather event that didn’t happen was more popular than most stories about events that did.
That hype-storm, said local meteorologist Cliff Mass, was seen by some in the climatological community as “a great failure” on the part of scientists and news organizations. The scientists, he explained, didn’t do a good job of communicating the nuances of their forecasts. The weather reporters, he added, didn’t seem that interested in the finer points of the science.
“Let’s face it, we’re in the click age,” he said. “There is an inherent tendency to hype.”
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After the storm blew over, climate scientists did some soul-searching about their own role in fueling the hype.
On Mass’ own blog, he described the approaching storm as “a true monster storm, potentially as strong as the most powerful storm in NW history.” In a post after the storm left, he wrote: “Local meteorologists warned of the worst-case situation, but failed to communicate the uncertainty of the prediction. I tried to talk about track errors, but it is clear that I needed to do much more.”
Forecasters, Mass said, “have a lot of uncertainties we don’t talk about. We need to be much better about providing probabilistic guidance: ‘According to our ensemble of models, here’s the most extreme version, here’s the most mild version, here’s the most probable version.’ We have to do better talking about uncertainty.”
Despite a few ramped-up headlines about record-breaking heat in the spring and potentially devastating storms in the fall, Mass says, Washington’s weather in 2016 was pretty boring — from a newsroom point of view.
A strong El Niño brought high temperatures early in the year; a follow-up La Niña cooled things back down. We got enough precipitation to fill our reservoirs for the summer.
Floods? “No significant floods this year.” Fires? “People were nervous because the first part of the year was so warm, but we had an extremely benign fire season.” How about the “Blob,” that mass of warm ocean water that was blamed for low snowpack and scrawny salmon runs? It has cooled off and is “very dead,” Mass said, citing recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And the snowpack that provides Seattle’s water? “The snowpack is in very good shape.”
This year, according to the models Mass trusts, looks like a “ La Nada year” — business as usual.
Not much of a story.
Mass, a longtime professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, is known (and criticized) for being a strange kind of firebrand: a firebrand for moderation.
He has come out swinging against reporters and editors, including some at The Seattle Times, accusing them of being reckless with science to gin up attention or pin every weather anomaly on climate change. (In 2013, Mass criticized a Seattle Times series about ocean acidification; The Times responded by saying “his critique ignored the actual science.”)
As a result, Mass said, he gets more attention from people who might ignore more strident voices — and that’s an opportunity to bring real science to people who might be living in a hype-storm of their own.
“I go against the hype-ers,” he said. “I can talk to Republicans. As scientists, we have to talk about what we believe is the absolute truth. If you lose your credibility, you have no chance.”
Despite his stubborn refusal to be alarmist, Mass admits there’s climatological drama on our horizon.
“Global warming is going to happen,” he said. “That’s already in the bag, and people are doing very little about it. Nobody is serious about reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Nobody.”
If we can’t turn back the clock on CO2, he said, we have to get serious about adapting: Build more reservoir capacity for when we lose our snowpack (which essentially serves as our region’s water fountain), persuade people to move away from potential flood zones, implement better forest management to prevent wildfires.
“I give talks in Eastern Washington,” Mass said, “and they may be Republicans but they want society to spend billions of dollars on this.”
He also noted that during his trips east of the mountains, he’d met California vintners who are migrating to Washington, anticipating drought to wipe out their vineyards down south. “Those people understand what’s happening,” he said. “They aren’t stupid.”
What we need, Mass stressed, is more science — but that looks uncertain under a Trump administration, which has already nominated the climate-change skeptic Scott Pruitt as head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“There’s a tremendous amount of nervousness in the meteorology and climatology community,” Mass said. “The threat is significant — there’s worry about getting rid of climate and earth-science programs at NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy. The U.S. has a large climate community. Is it going to be savaged by this new administration?”
A couple of years ago, Mass said, he attended a talk at the University of Washington by scientist Jared Diamond, author of “Guns, Germs and Steel.”
Mass said he approached Diamond afterward and asked: “You’re an expert on cultural adaptation. Is there any example in the history of the world where there’s a prediction of a major disaster in the future, but people have to invest — they have to sacrifice something now to invest in the future — and they do?”
Diamond, Mass said, shook his head and said: “No, no. I don’t think that’s ever happened.’ ”