Yesterday, I watched Accuweather’s weekly segment “Climate Extremes,” and a couple of the statements made were so inaccurate that I wanted to respond here. The presenters, Evan Myers and Accuweather’s resident climate-change expert Brett Anderson, walked viewers through the year’s temperature and weather in the Lower 48, particularly, stating with an odd mix of mirth and gravitas that 2012 would be a top-five warm year for the bulk of U.S. states.
I have no huge problem with that fact, even if it is based on temperatures data that has been adjusted upward by NOAA before it is offered to the public for consumption. I will mention, though, that the 1930s were warmer in the United States, by any objective measure, with worse droughts than those we’re seeing today. That said, I accept the overall observation that 2012 has been a significantly warmer year than average in my homeland.
Myers asks Anderson in the video what the impact on human beings is of the warmer temperatures, and Anderson rightly places drought at the top of the list. Although it turns out that corn harvests this year are far better than the dire forecasts of mid-summer indicated they would be, the drought has been tough on farmers and tough on communities across a big swath of the country. But here’s where things get weird. Anderson’s number-two item on the list of most worrisome effects on people of the warm year: tornadoes.
The first several months of the year did indeed see more tornadoes than average, but the months since have been unusually quiet, and overall 2012 has been far below average in the United States in terms of tornados. I expect a professional meteorologist, one who is an avowed expert on extreme weather and climate change, one who is on a prominent weather network, to get his facts straight about such a serious matter. For, conveying to the members of one’s audience who are known to be especially concerned about climate change that they’re at bigger risk of getting taken out by a tornado is indeed that, a serious matter. It turns out, though, that if you wanted to communicate the reality of 2012 in the United States when it comes to tornadic activity, then you would likely want to mention that it has been a gentle year so far, not an extreme one. You might even be tempted to shout the good news from the rooftops: “Hallelujah! The number of most lethal and frightening storms is down!”
Next in the video, Anderson fleshes out the issue of drought, observing that the preceding few months have been dry in the Pacific Northwest: “Well, we’ve had drought issues, we’ve had very low, water shortages showing up now, across the Northwest, which is unusual.” Presumably, Anderson is riffing off most people’s familiarity with the fact that the Pacific Northwest is famously wet. But he’s a meteorologist, one responsible for providing reliable and sound information to the public, and he appears bent in this instance, as he does frequently on Accuweather, on giving people the message: “It’s worse than you thought.”
Anderson has to know that drought is a standard feature in the Pacific Northwest’s climate. If he doesn’t, I’m telling him so now. Dozens, if not hundreds, of peer-reviewed scientific papers establish the fact that droughts, many of them serious, many of them sustained, have been occurring in the region for thousands of years. An excerpt from a single such paper is Knapp et al., 2003: “Historical climate data back to ca. A.D. 1895 and extended back several centuries using tree-ring records have shown that the interior Pacific Northwest (PNW) region commonly experiences persistent droughts.”
Now, these are two instances of inaccurate depictions of weather and climate on Accuweather, one regarding tornadoes (which Anderson suggested are up but are really down) and one regarding drought in the Pacific Northwest (which Anderson said is unusual but is anything but). Anderson is good enough to interact with commenters on Accuweather, defending his insistent dependence on alarmist climate news items politely and with good cheer. Will he now issue a correction of the errors in his discussion of climate? Or will the video simply be taken down? Or will Anderson and Myers and Accuweather itself simply allow the mistakes to stand? Only time will tell.