Should Meteorologists Be Making The Climate Connection?

Sep 17, 2018

An image of Hurricane Florence moving towards the United State's east coast.
Credit NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory

As hurricane Florence approached the east coast this past week, weather forecasters warned of an historic disaster. But, they didn’t say a lot about why this storm had gotten so big or so powerful.

A number of media outlets did make the link to climate change, but not necessarily in the forecasts or on the weather pages.

It’s interesting to note because meteorologists, as a community, have been slow to accept the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.  And there’s a deep divide on whether or not it is a weather forecaster’s job to talk about climate.

Jason Samenow is the Washington Post's weather editor and chief meteorologist for the Capital Weather Gang. Living Lab Radio spoke with Samenow last Thursday morning, as the Carolinas were preparing for a major hit.

“There is a general expectation that all other things being equal, if you warm up the ocean temperatures, the potential intensity of a hurricane can become stronger,” Samenow said.

He gave examples of recent extreme weather events, like Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Rita.

One of the strongest links that many meteorologists are seeing is that these storms are producing heavier rainfall that is leading to more flooding. In fact, one study showed in the past year that rainfall during Hurricane Harvey in particular was between 15 and as much as 38 percent worse than it would have produced without the impacts of global warming.

Samenow explained that when you warm up the air, you warm up the sea surface temperatures, and when there's more water vapor in the atmosphere, it feeds the hurricanes so they get fatter and create heavier downpours.

When meteorologists do report on climate connections, they typically do so in the aftermath of a storm, when they’re reviewing how strong the storm was and what its effects were. Before the storm happens, and during it, they typically stay focused on the preparedness.

However, the argument has been made that when you have people's attention and a big, engaged audience, that’s when you should report on the climate change link.

“It's a case by case decision that we make,” Samenow said. So far in regard to Florence, they’ve shared stories about the link between climate change from a colleague who works at their environmental desk on their social media channels.

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Web content in this post was produced by Liz Lerner.