Monday, January 30, 2012

Climatologists: Scientists or "Scientits"?

What's the difference between a meteorologist and a climatologist?  You're forgiven if you don't have a clue, but meteorologists study the atmosphere and use this to forecast short term weather conditions while climatologists study frequency and trends in weather patterns to prophesize on future, longer term weather conditions. Now you know.

I've been quite pleased with the weather this winter in our neck of the woods. There's been very little snow and I was out in my T-shirt yet again today. The meteorologist tells me that tomorrow will be balmy again and he's usually bang-on with his forecast. I've been less than pleased, however, with the climatologists' forecasts that were made about our winter several months ago.  Recall that this was supposed to be the "winter from hell" (ya, I know, but I actually did read that), or the "winter of our youth", which I'd interpreted to mean that I might actually have to upgrade to a snow blower and some decent winter boots.  I had visions of waking to the roar of the 5am snowplow swinging through our neighbourhood, stranding us in our driveways with the windrow.

Of course, none of this has come to pass.  At least, not in North America, so what went wrong? Are climatologists simply the boobs of the scientific community (the "brown reading group", if you will)? Or is all their reliance upon La Nina models, arctic air masses, Madden-Julian Oscillation, and other sciencey-sounding phrases that are now part of everyday vernacular flawed?

I'd like to believe that they're not all twits; some likely graduated top of the class. I'm not as convinced, however, that the tools and models climatologists use to determine weather trends over long periods of time can be relied upon with confidence. Predicting what winter has in store for us 3 months before it arrives and not even coming close is one thing, but these are the same wizards who have the world in a tizzy over what we have coming in the next 100 years.

The global warming debate seems to be cooling (excuse the pun), but I, for one, was never convinced that the models presented as fact could be taken seriously. How can trend data be relied upon when the measurements taken 200 years ago were made with instruments that weren't much more than stones tethered to long sticks and could certainly not be considered accurate? Do we trust any records of measurement that were made in the 1800's? And when we start stretching the data back even further, building arguments stemming from near-Biblical measurements, it becomes even more dubious.

Enter Climategate 2.0. Just when the balance of power in the climate change debate was tipping against the deniers, a fresh batch of 5 000 emails among scientists central to the assertion that humans are causing a global warming crisis were anonymously leaked to the public, giving new hope to the healthy skeptics. The three themes emerging from the emails were (1) important data that may counter global warming trends were being concealed, (2) the debate is more political than scientific, and (3) many of the scientists frankly acknowledge that the science is weak and reliant upon intentionally manipulated facts and data. Who's shocked?

Remember the hole in the ozone?  We were all supposed to be singed beyond recognition by now, if the experts were to be believed.  And what about acid rain? Most of our buildings, bridges, statues and anything else made of stone should have dissolved by now, no? Keep in mind these forecasts from our past the next time some eco-fascist tries to ram that "New York under water" bunk down your throat.

It took us 10 000 years to accurately predict tomorrow's weather today. No one should assume that the science involved in predicting the weather 100 years hence can be relied upon with similar confidence.

Now is the winter of our malcontent.